“I want my readers, my viewers to be afraid when my characters are in danger. I want them to be afraid to turn the next page, because the character may not survive it.” – George RR Martin
The deaths of fictional characters, whilst not exactly a hot topic at the moment, has been speculated recently in light of Avengers: Infinity War and Game of Thrones, and discussion of who may or may not survive has got me thinking about death in fiction.
I was re-watching A Series of Unfortunate Events, and noticed that a significant number of characters die, which is unusual considering that the books are aimed at children. Admittedly, most of the deaths seem to actually occur off screen – although the dead bodies are certainly encountered – and are relatively bloodless, in contrast to Game of Thrones where there seems to be a competition as to who gets the nastiest, bloodiest death.
It led me to think about how death is often treated in fiction, and why it’s important.
Death is particularly interesting in fantasy and sci-fi, because it doesn’t have to be permanent. Buffy dies at least twice. Gandalf is resurrected and promoted from Grey to White. The Deeper Magic resurrects Aslan. Rory Williams dies and is brought back thanks to various bits of wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey stuff. Altered Carbon’s world all but ensures that people need not die permanently at all. Alvin the Treacherous cheats death so many times it’s practically a running joke.
The trouble is, there are no stakes when death is not permanent.
The fictional deaths which impact us most – Mufasa, most of House Stark, Sirius Black, and many more – impact us because they are permanent, and when death is permanent, the stakes are far higher. If a character can’t really die, why should we care if they do? If they can be brought back by the flick of a writer’s pen, what does it matter? We won’t care so much about the outcome of a duel or a war or an incursion into enemy territory, if we know that they can somehow be brought back. Sometimes resurrection works and is integral to the plot – Aslan and Gandalf, for example – and the occasional fooling of the reader into thinking a character is dead when they’re not is useful – but it’s a plot device which should only be used when absolutely necessary.
Whilst the reader in me cries and swears terrible vengeance, the writer in me respects any writer who can and will ruthlessly kill off their characters, especially the ones they love. Anyone can kill off characters they don’t like, but to kill off – permanently – characters that they love – that means something. It raises the stakes. It makes us care.
For the past year and a half, I’ve been working on a fantasy epic, and some time ago I killed off a main character. It was a difficult decision and one I seriously considered reversing on several occasions. The character was one of my favourites, and I hated having to kill them off. I was just a little heart-broken by their death.
That said, I then waited eagerly for my beta-reader Rach to get to that particular scene, since I knew the character in question happened to be her favourite too. In fact, Rach mentions this particular incident in her own blog post titled Gateway Deaths.
She was not happy with me. I wasn’t happy with me either, but I maintain that the death was necessary.
Not only does permanent death raise the stakes, it also changes the game. Adventures, even fictional ones, become something darker and more serious when death is a real possibility. It changes our perceptions when we realise that no character, not our favourites, not the main character, not even the hero, is truly safe. A little reality seeps in and makes us care more about what happens than if we know they’re all going to make it to the end of the road, safe and sound. The tone of the story changes, and our expectations change too. Now we don’t only want to see Harry defeat Voldemort or Hiccup beat Alvin or Daenerys Targaryen claims on the Iron Throne – we want to see them live, too.
Why? Because we love these fictional characters, even if we don’t always like them and, like anyone we love, we want them to live.