Warning. Sirens. Red lights flashing. A naked old man gesticulating wildly.
I’m going to spoil various fictional properties.
I do not like spoilers, and I am not spoiling them because I drink in your misery. That said, in making my point it will be necessary to pull back the curtain on some particular pop culture properties — otherwise, I have to say something like, “And that ahem, main character dies in that one television show on ABC that we’ve all seen, wink, wink, thumbs-up,” and you’ll blink and be totally knackered.
Is that the word? “Knackered?”
I’m not British. Maybe some of my UK Killah Beez can hop in here and course correct.
Are we all sufficiently warned? Yes? Good. Moving on.
Because I need to get into the meat of this post, which is: death in fiction is intended to be a gut-punching dramatic turning point.
Unfortunately, at least half the time what death ends up being is a soap operatic crutch that does not create conflict, but steals conflict, instead.
The Joss Whedon Problem
I am also not an apologist. I think as a creative person (read: self-important jack-ape) it’s important to know how to think critically about other creative properties, and so I turn my scrutiny toward just about anything that passes in front of these two peepers.
Joss Whedon, however, has a problem.
He likes to kill off characters. Don’t believe me? Clicky-clicky, web nerds.
Now, before you get froth-chinned and spittle-mouthed, I’m not suggesting that killing off a main character is 100% always a bad idea. In fact, in what is probably a classic mis-step in the arrangement of this post, I haven’t even told you what the real problem is yet.
Many of the early deaths in Whedon’s work get a thumbs-up from me.
Ah, but he started to rely on it as a dramatic crutch, leaning on it more and more.
Of course, I still haven’t told you why this is a problem, have I?
Let’s correct that.
A Line Drawn In Bones
You’re writing a story. You’re making a TV show. You’re drawing a comic. Whatever. You’re creating some kind of narrative, and you come upon the option of, “I could have this character die by getting tossed into this rocket-powered grain thresher.” That’s a viable choice, given that this is your story and all.
Except, pause for a moment.
Ask one question:
“Does this create conflict, or does this remove conflict?”
I’d suggest that at least half the time, it does the opposite of what you want for your story — meaning, it steals conflict from the narrative.
Hiram Q. Cockpuncher is a man with many secrets. He knows, for instance, who the father of our protagonist, Squidboy, really is. Further, he also knows where the Moon Pirate’s Secret Treasure is buried. So, when Hiram is thrown into the growling tines of the grain thresher and torn asunder, his death creates conflict. How? Because with him die secrets. Squidboy may never learn who is father was, and the Moon Pirate’s treasure may remain forever lost.
Made-Up Example Number Two:
Hiram Q. Cockpuncher knows a different secret, instead. He knows Squidboy’s true identity. He knows this because he is Squidboy’s brother. Hiram getting rent into bloody ribbons by the super-toothy grain thresher therefore thieves conflict like a magpie. Hiram represented an agitating presence, a grain of sand in the soft oystery mouth of the story that yields pearl after pearl of good narrative conflict. Taking him off the table solves a problem. In fiction, we don’t want to solve problems until the end, unless the solving of a problem (i.e. the answering of a conflict) leads only to new problems.
Look it this way. Fiction is an amalgam of conflicts. Some big, some small, but all are obstacles for our protagonist(s). Without conflict, fiction is lifeless and dull, and it offers no shape — a jagged or curvy line is far more interesting than a flat one, which is why we get hotter over Marilyn Monroe more than we do, say, Olive Oyl.
Or something like that.
The characters in any work of fiction are all potentially agitating elements, even if they’re not antagonists. Characters do things we — and the other characters — don’t expect. As characters, they complicate the narrative rather than simplifying it. And that’s a good thing. Buffy hooks up with Angel, but it is not a safe relationship, and only serves to draw new conflicts to her — a-duh, she is a vampire slayer, and he is a vampire. Drum roll please, conflict. (Conflict’s here all week, folks. Don’t forget to tip your waiter. Try the swordfish.) Even Buffy’s friends tend to complicate her life — they represent vulnerabilities, they put themselves in danger, they sometimes argue and fight with Buffy, and so forth.
In fact, more examples like this are in order. Let’s dive in.
I Got Your Examples Right Here *grabs crotch*
Various characters die over the course of that show.
Angel dies. Initially it reads like the removal of a conflict, but since this is a dark fantasy world more on par with comic book reality rather than real life, Angel’s death isn’t permanent. In fact, bringing him back only amps up the conflict all the more, and it serves to offer greater agitation, not less.
Jenny Calendar dies. Jenny was mostly a positive influence, more a simplifying and positive element for Giles than a negative complication. She did have that whole “I’m keeping Gypsy secrets” thing going on, but once that was largely exposed, the conflict lost a little of its teeth. So, with Angel as the one to kill her, it creates conflict. Giles now wants Angel to pay; Buffy wants to save Angel. Moreover, Giles is now tormented and put on edge — through her death we see a transformation in him. Conflict is born.
Buffy’s Mom bites it. This one doesn’t stack up to an easy equation — on paper, Buffy’s mother provided a lot of conflict in the show, and her death theoretically took all that off the table. And yet, it earned us a truly poignant episode of television, “The Body,” in which we get to see how sometimes, in Sunnydale, people die like normal people. It’s a gut-punching episode, and it does represent something of a pivot point for Buffy’s character. Hence, it nets out as a major narrative win, and further proves that despite all the shit I talk about on this site, sometimes fiction refuses to be pinned down for easy categorizations or rules.
Tara takes a dirt-nap. Willow’s girlfriend catches a bullet, and that’s that — further, it spurs Willow into Dark Willow, which is a giant conflict for the show. Hence, it works, because it’s a force for conflict rather than against it, though this actually leads to a second question — when considering death for a main character, ask yourself, “Do I get more mileage out of this character’s existence, and can I do the same conflict with her life that I was hoping to achieve with her death?” I might argue that Tara staying alive could’ve still been a source of conflict, and even the source of the same conflict (Willow Goes Evil). Tara and Willow did not necessarily have a complicated relationship, but it could’ve been made complicated — Tara cheating on Willow, Tara breaking up with her, Tara changes while Willow doesn’t (“growing apart”). Willow could still go Dark Willow, but then we still have Tara on the table as a viable source of future conflict. (Further, Whedon kind of the did the “random death!” notion with Buffy’s mom.)
Anya sucks the pipe. Anya dies, and nothing is gained. It’s a shallow death — as a demon character, she brought a lot of good conflict to the table, and in dying took that conflict off the table. This is maybe the first true instance where it feels like the death is purely melodramatic and driven by soap opera desires rather than actual narrative needs.
Spike double-dies. ZZzzz. Spike dies, and it’s kind of like Angel dying, and Spike comes back, and it’s kind of like Angel coming back, and… yeah, at this point the mechanic of “Main Character Dying!” starts to feel weathered and beaten, like an old sock. An old stinky sock. Filled with dung beetles and rotting marzipan. This removed conflict for Buffy, though arguably brought it back around for Angel, but even still — not sure of the point. He sacrifices himself, but it feels like the character can make a more meaningful sacrifice.
Whedon from this point relies on death as a narrative mechanic, and it starts to feel like an easy dramatic magic trick than anything engineered as a true dramatic mechanism.
More on this in a moment.
Location, Location, Location
I’m referring of course to the location in the narrative sequence, not actual location. Death isn’t made better if it’s at a Krispy Kreme in Des Moines. Unless it’s death-by-donuts? That sounds awesome. “I’ve been glazed!” And then the corpse is injected with jelly until it bloats and explodes. Splurt. Whee!
I think I’m off track.
Point is, death can be a greater thief of conflict when ill-placed in the sequence of events.
You might think, “Ahh, a death in the beginning is a motivating force.” And that’s not inaccurate, and it can be used to create conflict. But, if we don’t care about the perishing character, we’re less invested in the conflict and are likelier to recognize the moment as nothing more than an inciting incident. I like to think of Supernatural as a good bad example of this. I love that show, but in the first half of the first episode, Sam’s girlfriend dies — in theory, this is a good thing to set Sam back on the path of monster hunter, and yet… who cares? We don’t know her. Her dying is on par with throwing a mannequin under the wheels of a city bus. Further, Sam is only so broken up about it, and that’s because it’s very hard to make an internal conflict like that play out on screen.
Consider an alternative: Sam returns to life as a monster hunter, but leaves a still-breathing girlfriend behind. She’s diligent. She won’t let it lie. She follows him. She becomes a complicating influence because she’s put herself in danger, and thus puts Sam in danger. She becomes a target for the demon, and the conflict is dramatic and visual and put center stage — it’s not hurried and put behind us. (And you ask, “Okay, numbnuts, so what’s the inciting incident that puts Sam back on the path to monster hunter?” And I retort, “It’s already in there, poo-breath, what with the fact Sam’s father is missing.”)
That shift further goes to show that a death somewhere in the middle of a narrative gives us a greater dramatic payoff. We have time to build up conflicts, and have time to make the death meaningful both in terms of the new problems it creates and in terms of how the audience has come to grow attached to the character. (Once more, spoiler alert. Turn away now.) The Dexter season finale last night is likely a good example of this. Early in the series he’s with Rita not because he loves her but because she’s part of his mask. Over time, he grows to love her. They have a child. They get married. She and his children are the focus of his humanity, so when she is killed by Trinity at the end of the episode, we see that her death is sure to have major consequences for his character. Conflict is born. (Though, I say “likely a good example” because we don’t know how it pays off. I’ll say this about that finale: it was great, but going that direction has huge, huge risks. More on that in another post, I think.)
It’s also tempting to say, “Well, a death at the end can be impactful.”
And it can.
But it can’t create more conflict at that point.
You may wonder: “Why would I want to create more conflict at the end of a story?”
Bear with me, because this is a little “out there.” Even when the story’s done, it’s not done in our heads. The audience will forever fill in the blanks — it’s the nature of fan-fiction, really. Just because a beloved book or film or series ends doesn’t mean it ends in the minds of the audience. Star Wars is over, but it’s not over. I will forever have gauzy, uncertain continuations of favorite characters. Death at the end runs the risk of removing that aspect. When David Chase finally made it mostly clear that Tony Soprano and his family sucked a bullet at the end of The Sopranos, I felt… disturbed by that. I felt like it took something away. I like leaving them at that table, forever wondering, always on the edge of dying, but never dying. Or envisioning Tony in prison: a new conflict, a new story, a new narrative. What do their deaths do for the overall story looking back?
So, What The Hell Do I Do?
Not to be morose, but death is the one constant. I’m doing to die. You’re going to die. Our cats and dogs are going to die. The sun is going to die. Everything dies. And yet, despite that, it remains the number one mystery, and applicable to a number of themes and stories. I’m not saying to eschew death in your fiction.
I’m saying, make sure it’s not a crutch.
Ask yourself some questions when you’re thinking of killing off a main character. (And really, this post is about killing off protagonists — if we’re talking genre-based stuff, the antagonists are often targeted for death. Though, even here, you could ask: can we get satisfying mileage out of keeping them around? On the one hand, this is why Batman doesn’t kill Joker. On the other hand, it becomes kind of silly that Batman doesn’t kill Joker.) The questions are:
First, is this intended for melodrama? Is the death sexy? By which I mean, every goddamn season finale or third act of a story or comic book will salaciously advertise OMG SOMEONE IS GOING TO DIE! Crash of thunder! Cue the music! Gasp! Gape! No! It becomes rote. It becomes boring. That’s a clear sign of it being a crutch.
Second, by killing this character, am I taking conflict away from the story, or creating it?
Third, is I were to leave this character alive, could I still institute new conflict? Could I get more mileage out of their continued existence?
Fourth, if I choose to leave the death on the table, is it placed correctly in the narrative to maximize conflict? To milk it sweetly, the way one might milk a chocolate cow for its chocolate milk?
No, I don’t know what that means, except I kind of want a glass of chocolate milk. Go figure.
In the end, what I’m telling you is that, often enough, death steals conflict from the story as sure as a cat will steal the breath from a wriggling infant. Before you put Big Character Death in play, consider the ramifications, consider the reasons, and consider alternate options.
And somebody please, please get me a goddamn glass of chocolate milk.