Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Death and its story functions

The emotional impact of killing a character in your story can range from major trauma to a shoulder shrug. All deaths serve a function in the story, though.

Killing faceless crowds in a zombie-apocalypse story is expected. (Could you write a zombie-apocalypse story without that?) Enemy minions exist to prove the hero knows a thing or two about karate or gun-fu. Or to prove the bad guy is really, really bad because he kills his own minions. These sorts of deaths function as part of the background atmosphere of the story -- setting the tone and telling the reader how gory this will or won't be.

The deaths of major characters and secondary characters are more serious. I've been thinking about how and why characters die, recently, and yes they're all looking nervous and preparing cases for why they need to survive the story... here are some reasons I might kill them:

Noble sacrifice
These characters didn't "need" to die. They didn't do anything to deserve it, and they weren't obviously red-shirts. Yet they choose to step up and cover someone else's escape, or do something heroic that gets them killed. These can be real heartstring-pullers, when done well. A couple thoughts on getting these deaths right:
  • The character will need some development and reader sympathy. Don't use walk-on, bit-player characters for this -- it won't have the same impact.
  • Careful not to make the character "too good" before their sacrifice. It can be a give-away, it'll make it obvious that they'd do such a thing and it takes the edge off their nobility. At the same time, don't make it out of character either -- though a touch of redemption doesn't hurt.
The most recent example that comes to mind are the ship's pilots in Prometheus. They were not horror-movie idiots, and remained outside most of the drama that was going on. The writers gave them some good banter to develop a little character. And when called on, they made a noble sacrifice which -- given how the rest of the movie went -- was once of the few scenes that really touched me.

Love this photo, let's use it again: Parisian catacombs.
Photo by Atif Gulzar, available at sxc.hu
Too much guilt
A character seeking redemption makes a noble sacrifice as described above. This can be very effective, if it illustrates the fundamental character shift that's needed for a character to achieve redemption -- in other words, if the audience agrees that the character has earned forgiveness. However, the character cannot forgive himself, and his noble sacrifice is a form of suicide. If not, this can look like a cheat, a short cut, and get an eye-roll rather than a heart-felt sigh from the reader.

Perfection attained
This is sort of a Zen thing. It's not the easiest to grasp, as it seems horribly unfair on the surface. The most high-profile example of this type of death (that I know of) is Wash's, in the movie Serenity. The character's final performance (in Wash's case, an insanely difficult flight) displays such mastery and spiritual awareness that -- well, there's nothing more to reach for. Go directly to Nirvana, do not pass "Go," do not collect $200.

On another level, it's the tragedy of someone struck down in their prime. At the pinnacle of skill. It can feel like a cheap shot, to some readers, probably because we want to see people rewarded for perfection and not killed. So proceed with care.

Traditional mentor's death
Story-wise, mentors die because the student needs to make his own way now. They die to raise the tension by reducing the resources the characters have on hand. They die because having them leave would still allow the possibility of a return -- and if they do, they can cheat the story of a properly earned win. 

Mentors can include parents, uncles, anybody helpful to the character. Ever noticed how many stories begin by destroying the character's childhood home and family? Killing the mentor is such a staple, it's hard to give it the weight it deserves. The characters rarely have time to grieve, since the story's plot is taking up their attention. Or if they do have time to grieve, the plot needs tightening up... it's not easy. Some more thoughts on how tricky it is:
  • Didn't have enough time to meet them properly. Therefore, they were only a bit-part character and their death has little impact on the reader.  To combat this, some writers pad out the first chapter or two with everyday life intended to introduce the parents we're about to kill -- wasting valuable story time.
  • Death was not relevant to the story. Yoda died in Return of the Jedi, and... it meant nothing, really.
  • Purpose unclear. Dumbledore's murder was actually perfectly reasonable and on the noble side. But because of how Harry Potter was written, that couldn't be shown to the reader at the time and his death was reduced to a cheap emotional shot that only made me shrug. 
The hand of God
In real life, people die suddenly in car accidents and the higher purpose is hard to see.  In stories, such things can develop a character or set a chain of events in motion. But sometimes a significant character's death is swept up in a larger action sequence and left unaddressed, or the death is "random" and has no real story function. These can really piss fans off.

I try to keep in mind that while I hope my readers are sufficiently immersed in my writing to think that random events are random, the truth is there's no such thing as a random event in a story. Everything is under my control. Every bullet flying in a Matrix-style shootout hits what I want it to hit. I believe that on a gut level, readers know this and they'll call you on it if a character's death doesn't have sufficient purpose.

Maybe writers think that by adding "random" events, they're increasing the realism of their story. Well... I would disagree with that. Unlike real life, fiction is supposed to make sense. And honestly, any "random" event in a story is ultimately the writer falling back on "chance" when s/he ought to be making every event a logical consequence of previous events. They're showing their hand. God does not show his hand.

"Random" deaths can be done, and can be done well. The example that comes to my mind is the death of Buffy's mother in Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- though no, it wasn't truly purpose-less. It was a chance for deep character exploration. And I would argue the writers had earned that "random" death through several seasons of establishing realism in the series.

What purpose did a major character's death serve in your story?

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