Death in Fiction and Why Doomsdaying is So Irritating

Coulson to Loki: "You lack conviction."
I mention in an earlier post that too many writers use death as a cop-out. It is, unfortunately, easier for writers to claim profundity when they kill off a character than to acknowledge the truth: they didn't know how to pay off the character properly.

Does killing off a character ever work? I think it can (there are all those Shakespearean tragedies after all) but certain factors apply:

The Character Has to Matter

I used to think that the problem arose when the character did matter (Why did they kill him!?), but I lately changed my mind. The last season of The Mentalist kills off a character, Vega who is exclusive to that season--and the death was pointless (not in the nihilistic sense, which I will get to later, but in the pointless writing sense). Vega didn't matter enough to The Mentalist franchise to merit a death.

On the other hand, Agent Coulson in Marvel's Avengers did.

Without being a major character, he was important enough to the other characters, to the franchise, and to the narrative arc that his death was not simply shocking (look what we did! we can kill off whomever we want!). It had a narrative function.

The Character Has to Be More Interesting Dead than Alive

Vega, as Kim's protégé, was far, far, far more interesting alive.

I'm a huge fan of Coulson's character and was from Day 1; regarding the movie, however, he had nowhere else to go and nothing more to offer. His character had accomplished everything it needed to accomplish within that context. Likewise, in Buffy, Buffy's mom--although an excellent character--had nothing more to offer the series after Season 3; her death was useful in creating one of Whedon's strongest episodes, "The Body."

Much the same could be said, by the way, of Hamlet. And King Lear. The characters have done all they can do--'nuff said.

This isn't true of most characters. Generally speaking, writers kill because paying off a character in an interesting and constructive way is difficult.

Speaking of which . . .

The Death Should be Interesting and Constructive

Star Trek: TNG  brought back Tasha Yar after her first pointless death because having her die in Romulan captivity was about two billion times more interesting (and produced a number of excellent episodes).

Lord Jim dies nobly. Simba's dad dies trying to protect his son as does Nemo's mom. Joss in Person of Interest brings on her death through her inexorable sense of justice (the writers do a great job with her character; her "tragic flaw" is hinted out as early as Season 1). I hate to use the overused and hackneyed phrase "They made a difference" but, yeah, they did and so did their deaths.

Yes, yes, I know that death can happen for no reason, but . . .

Nihilism is Old Hat

Penny's death in Dr. Horrible accomplishes nothing but to point out the randomness of death and give Dr. Horrible something to wrap his adolescent mind around.

And so what?

The problem with pointing out that DEATH CAN STRIKE ANYONE! OH MY GOSH, IT'S SO DARK, AND, LIKE, YOU KNOW, LIKE, DEATH IS HARSH, YO! is that anyone who is even vaguely grown-up already knows it.

I was sad to lose her, but Joss's death provided
constructive pay-offs, especially for Elias.
Her death mattered.
About every fifty or so years, someone needs to point it out, just as about every fifty or so years, someone needs to write about the wretchedness of the human existence or make some point about the futility of trying to do the right thing or paint a bleak dystopian picture of the future, blah, blah, blah. Lord of the Flies was written in 1954. I guess we're due for one more classic along the same lines.

But that's it. After it's been said once (and well), it becomes a one trick pony. Killing a character for the sake of a nihilistic message is the same reason I DETEST doomsdaying (from politicians, religious people, pundits, economists: I'm an equal opportunity detester of doomsdaying).

People who love to doomsday will often try to argue that it is necessary to face the truth, see life as it is, deal with reality or whatever tripe they have convinced themselves to believe, yet all this supposed insight rarely produces anything constructive. There's a kind of religious attitude (in the sense of being entirely faith-based) embedded in doomsdaying (even when produced by non-religious people) that equates saying all the negative stuff with being in the right camp. Accept the nihilism--you too will be saved!

By all the people too busy to be nihilistic presumably.

Real real life--not over-intellectualized real life--can be painful. It can also be joyous. In between is all the weird, dull, everyday, compelling, fun, delightful, thought-provoking stuff that doesn't get resolved by easy cop-outs. The struggle is the thing that carries us through a decent story, and the struggle is not automatically negative.

Stephen King says it best:
A tragedy is a tragedy, and at the bottom, all tragedies are stupid. Give me a choice and I'll take A Midsummer Night's Dream over Hamlet every time. Any fool with steady hands and a working set of lungs can build up a house of cards and then blow it down, but it takes a genius to make people laugh. 

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