If a show sets up an expectation that anyone can die and then showcases a handful of characters… is it really being true to its core premise? To put it another way, at what point does your desire to see further main characters killed off interfere with story and enjoyment? When does worry as a viewer disappear? When is it replaced with apathy at what may come?
“I just don’t feel like any of the main characters are in real danger.”
Both a solid argument and a bit of strangeness all rolled into one. For we all have watched the serialized shows for the past twenty some odd years. And with their coming it means we are watching lives twist and change through each zombie apocalypse, vampire slayer, gangster talking to a shrink, plane crash survivors, high school teacher turned criminal mastermind… all of it. Through it all, whether we knew it or not, we were watching a show not only likely to get some characters killed off, but they might very well be people we enjoyed watching. It put us at the edge of our seats week in and week out.
Does that change as the shows go on longer? Assuming the writing quality doesn’t suffer from the weight of its own success, is the idea “Anyone can die” enough of an idea to ensure the ratings don’t suffer.
And if it does, what can the writers do to bring that… fear back to the viewing experience?
I read comics, a format where if you read the adventures of Batman or Spider-man then the one truth is pretty much universal – the hero isn’t going to die at the end of the issue (and for this argument I’d like to say that yes, some of these characters have “died” and they have come back – but you have decades worth of stories where they just go on and on). My point is that I don’t need the fear of death for my characters to enjoy a comic book. I just need the story to be compelling in some fashion or another.
I would think that in order to have a serialized show there has to be a consistent POV. And while many serialized shows have contained multiple POVs, I still must care somewhat about the characters. So a lot of times the whole idea of “No one is safe” is very artificial. Buffy killed off a potential main cast member in its pilot episode. Angel did the same about half-way through its first season. Lost killed off some characters you loved and let others you hated stick around for longer than they should have.
Odds were high, though, that Jack and Buffy and Angel and Walter were going to keep going for the majority of the show. And I would assume anyone who loved those shows wouldn’t want those particular characters to die without some huge (HUGE) reason behind it from a story perspective.
The two shows currently airing which try to walk this line (as far as the idea “anyone can die”… well almost anyone… well maybe just the supporting characters… and Sean Bean…”): Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead.
From what I’ve seen and read from both series (being a fan of the books and comics), I have to believe each contains a handful of “untouchables”… at least until the final season of each. There are certain characters I expect will continue to breathe life in their respective universes. GoT – Arya, Danny, and Tyrion seem the most likely. WD – Rick and Carl… with Carl actually being the absolute last survivor from our original group (my personal theory on how that story could/should possibly end).
The Walking Dead probably has the greater burden of the two, being in the post-apocalyptic world where, if we’re being honest about it, people are just fodder. A place where every day could and probably should be your last. Over the seasons they introduce new characters and kill off preexisting ones, but there has slowly become a “core” group who have managed to stick around from season 1 through the end of this last season. Is it a bad thing this has happened? Remember, we’re not watching an anthology where the characters only are on set for the episode or two. We need to build a connection with them (thus connecting us to the show itself).
Game of Thrones goes through episodes where no one dies, and then all of a sudden, everyone is gone. It also has the benefit of being much closer to a planned ending (only 13 episodes left total between this season and last). Things are coming to a head, which means those characters we’ve grown accustomed to watching may slowly drop away without us realizing it’s about to even happen.
So is unpredictability a good thing or the only thing?
I’m not sure if past a certain point it matters all that much. Most of the time, I’m willing to forgive a show some smaller things if they’ve delivered on their promises in the past.
So obviously I think everyone can die at any instance? No. Honestly, I assume most main characters are going to make it a little while longer. I don’t expect to Sansa die anytime soon… I don’t expect Michonne to kick the bucket this coming season. And that’s the thing… I don’t need to fear for their lives… not when I can still fear for their souls.
John McGuire is the author of the supernatural thriller The Dark That Follows, the steampunk comic The Gilded Age, and the novellas Theft & Therapy and There’s Something About Mac through the Amazon Kindle Worlds program.
He also has a short story in the Beyond the Gate anthology, which is free on most platforms!
And has two shorts in the Machina Obscurum – A Collection of Small Shadows anthology! Check it out!
He can also be found at www.johnrmcguire.com.
It’s Thanksgiving week. For some of us that means roasted fauna, houses packed with kids, and huge dinners with family. For others it’s a chance to raid retail America at 4AM to wage jihad against our rival shoppers. And perhaps, for a few, it’s a chance to reflect upon our good fortunes and spend a few hours or days among those we cherish most.
Let me level with you. For me, it’s mostly a chance to write even later into the night than usual.
As I sit here in the dark, my laptop humming away, I try to think of appropriate topics to fill the holiday void. Maybe, I think, I’ll write a nice piece about turkeys. Nah. Too ridiculous. Everyone already knows how amazing turkeys taste. Well…what about a nice anecdotal essay of all the glorious Thanksgiving feasts I’ve devoured? Nope. Too hunger-inducing. Ok. Maybe a nutty short story about zombie pilgrims, seven-barreled blunderbusses, and cranberry sauce gone evil? Meh. Maybe next year.
As it turns out, aside from Halloween, the holidays just aren’t that inspiring word-wise to me. With all the reindeer, jingling bells, and Stove Top stuffing, everything merry is pretty much covered. Seems I’d rather write about castles crumbling, warlocks trying to end the world, and maidens not-so-fair. Yep. Fantasy tropes galore. Santa was never very good at swordplay anyhow.
And so, lacking anything holiday-appropriate, I’ve decided to tackle a much darker subject this week. Death. Yes, death. Specifically the killing off of fictional characters. More specifically the way I like to do it when I write.
Why, you ask? “It’s the holidays, J Edward. You’re supposed to be cheerful.” Well…perhaps it’s the weather (grey and sunless) or maybe it’s the chill in the air. Or more likely it’s because I’m neck deep in putting the finishing touches on Dark Moon Daughter and completing the final episode of Hollow Empire. A glimpse at the names of these two titles should be enough to let you know. These are dark fantasy works. And that means lots of characters need killing.
I suppose some writers agonize over ending the careers of their favorite characters. After all, these fictional folks become a part of us. We are them, and they are us. The longer we spend with them, the more we come to know and love them. The same goes for readers of fiction. I’ve been there. I know. When Gandalf the Grey plummeted off the bridge with the Balrog, I suffered some heart stoppage. When Javert threw himself in the river in Les Miserables, I felt all, “WTF?” Heck, when Sauron got spanked in Return of the King, I was a little sniffly.
Writing a character’s death, however…that’s a whole other matter for me. I crave it. I love it. Having marched so many miles in their mud-encrusted boots, having survived with them through war and darkness, I’ve lived inside them and experienced things I never could in my ordinary life. But when the curtain falls and the lights go out, it’s time for them to meet their makers. Not all of them, mind you. Just enough to keep the reader wondering.
Ending a character’s life, no matter how beloved, has become a way for me to move on to the next hero, the next villain, the next part of the writing experience. When most readers close a book they’re reading, the characters live on in their hearts. It’s the same for me. But when I slam shut the cover of my own works, I want to remember the way my characters left the world. I like a story finished, all the loose ends tied up, all doubts ended. And for some characters, that means a sharp shovel and some cold earth. Those of you who’ve read Down the Dark Path might snicker at that last part and say, “I call BS, J Eds. There’s this part at the end in which...” Yeah, I know. To you I say, “Just wait for Nether Kingdom.”
So let’s talk about technique. How’s it done? How do you reach out and snatch the reader’s heart out of their chest? How do you become a killer? For starters, let’s talk about how not to do it. In a popular novel I recently finished (not to be named for fear of retribution) two clutch characters are murdered in the same chapter. One, fittingly so, gets a few final words, a vivid description of his end, and even a zinger of a quip mocking the man and his life. The other…well… she gets none of these. In fact, we’re not even sure she’s dead. We’re left wondering, not for mystery’s sake, but solely due to poor description, whether this woman has been murdered or not. The result is that I cared about the one death, but felt totally ambiguous about the other. Not good. Made me mad. You cheated me, Mr. Author. You promised two, but only gave me one.
How then do you do it? I won’t claim to be the expert on character death. Far from it. But I’ve some practice in the realm, and here’s my process. Foremost, unless the plan is to resurrect ’em or purposefully trick the reader into thinking their favorite huggy little elf or blundering hero has died when they haven’t, then make sure you kill ’em dead. The first time. Leave no questions. Let the Grim Reaper walk right up and snatch the character’s soul away with his cold, bony claws. Be absolute. Second, and here’s the key, make it vivid. I’m not talking about fountains of blood (although sometimes…) or pages upon pages of last words and, “…tell my wife I love her.” I mean give us the skinny. Was the character sick before he died? Well…tell us about his shivers, his eyes gone cold, his wide-eyed stare at the heavens once he’s gone. Did the princess burn alive in her ivory tower? Ok…give us her pain, her dress turning to ash, her arms curling across her chest. What about battle? Did Ser Bigsword meet Lord Darknuts and bite off more than he could chew? Good. I want to read about the bad guy carving his armor to ribbons. I want to know his terror. Admit it; so do you.
Because ultimately, that’s why you’re so invested in the characters’ lives. Because maybe, just maybe, your favorite knight, scullery maid, or kindly, soft-spoken wizard could suddenly meet their end. And if the author insists on doing that to you, you’ve every right to insist he does it right. I’ll do it for you. That’s a promise.
So…Happy Thanksgiving. Enjoy your feasts, your shopping, and your families. I’ll still be here in my dungeon, awaiting your return. If you’ve a favorite character in Down the Dark Path, I’d worry for their health…