Death is something that’s ever-present in our lives, but nobody likes to talk about it in real life. That’s why we have fiction. It’s kind of ironic that so many of us spend our finite lives watching unreal characters live and die, but we love it. Some of the most memorable moments in pop culture revolve around the deaths of beloved characters, deaths of minor characters are used to set plots in motion, body counts are racked up for our amusement; any way you look at it, death is big business in the entertainment industry.
But as with most things, there are right ways and wrong ways to go about it. Barring black comedies or big dumb action flicks, death is usually meant to be taken extremely seriously in a story. Nobody wants their favorite hero or their adorable love interest to bite the dust, but sometimes sacrifices have to be made to make a tale truly memorable. Here are some right and wrong ways to bring that about. I’m going to use a lot of specific examples here so beware of spoilers.
Do: Make it Count
Noble sacrifices and tragic losses have always been staples of storytelling drama. Nothing galvanizes an audience like a protagonist who has his or her happiness ripped from them by some villainous piece of crap who killed their loved ones and left them with nothing but a thirst for vengeance. And nothing gets the feels going like a noble character giving their life for their comrades or a character in the depths of despair taking their own life. It’s all very cliché, but it’s still damn effective.
Death should always have a purpose in a story. If you don’t feel it, it’s just filler. I still remember watching Godzilla: King of Monsters as a child and seeing the scientist that created the deadly weapon used to take the apocalyptic monster down choose to die with the beast rather than risk the possibility that his knowledge could be used in warfare. And watching the original Gojira decades later as an adult, that same gesture still gets me, even more so because in the Japanese version there are so many added character wrinkles.
Likewise in war films, killing shouldn’t just something you do because you can. It’s a horrific and ugly thing that scars and taints every soul it touches. We can watch Rambo mow down the dirty commies or whatever all day without blinking, but watching a scared recruit go crazy in boot camp and kill his sergeant and then himself, or the intense suffering of Nazi concentration camps; that’s memorable. Remember that red dress in Schindler’s List? Yeah, you do.
And I don’t think I’ll ever get over Tara’s fate in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television show. So shocking and so senseless, but absolute dramatic gold. A wonderful character dying purely from the stupidity of a desperate wannabe villain utterly changed the dynamic of that story in drastic ways, and sometimes that can be a really great thing.
Don’t: Take it Back
Look at that smug, punchable bastard.
While death in a story is often used for drama and tension, a lot of folks use it as a cheap trick. They want to have their cake and eat it too so they feed you the drama and then go “PSYCH!” This is just plain bullshit. The worst recent offender I can think of is The Dark Knight Rises in which they make a huge to-do about the titular hero sacrificing himself to save his city complete with corny-as-hell statue to commemorate and then have his butler spot him alive and well hiding out in Italy. It was so awful, out of character, and just plain lame that fans of the film had to put forth the theory that it was really a dream, like an Inception crossover I guess. Christian Bale had other ideas. Sorry, folks, it really was that bad.
Another story that pulled this to maddening effect was in the video game Uncharted: Drake’s Deception. In that one, you’re exploring the fabled lost city Ubar pursuing your bad guy and suddenly a sniper bullet takes out your beloved companion of three games, Sully. This was genuinely shocking. After tearing after the dicks who shot him in a rage, you run into your recently lost pal; lol/jk, it was just a hallucination. Oh, so you were just dicking me around, Uncharted 3? Screw you too.
Do: Use it to Ratchet Up the Tension
Leaf on the wind, spike through the chest.
The old rules were that heroes have to survive because good triumphs over evil and everything is gonna be alright. The problem with that is rules are boring and predictable. Can Batman and Robin escape King Tut’s elaborate unsupervised deathtrap? Tune in next week same Bat-time, same Bat-channel! Bitch, please. Nobody is dying. Except in the comics, where the Joker famously beat Robin with a crowbar and blew his flamboyant ass to hell. If you always know that everyone is getting out of the danger in one piece, there’s no legitimate tension. Somebody has got to go. And now every time Joker shows up in a Batman comic, you subconsciously expect horrible things.
Joss Whedon has a talent for this. In Serenity he offed multiple characters from the beloved Firefly crew and when death was closing in around the balance and our heroes prepared for their last stand, I really believed it. Better, I felt it. William Faulkner decreed that “in writing, you must kill your darlings” and that’s true, and not only in the metaphorical sense it was intended. If you take something or someone you love and sacrifice it for the good of the story, you get drama and audience investment.
Don’t: Trivialize It
Sorry, everyone. You totally missed it.
Obviously, death should mean something; it’s the most universally feared aspect of life. If you overuse it, you kill the drama; repetition equals comedy. Take a look at slasher films. Not exactly the most respected genre of cinema, but a successful one. How many college kids have cheered and laughed as Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers stalked and massacred copulating teens? Or how about your Stallones or Schwarzeneggers mowing down generic baddies and offering glib one-liners? Good times to be sure, but it’s not the stuff high art is made of. It makes for stories you forget by the time the popcorn is done.
The final season of True Blood killed a primary character off-screen and I spent most the rest of the season trying to figure out what the hell they were thinking. I figured Tara’s mother may have done it and lied and they were saving the revelation for later, but nope. And this after they already killed her and brought her back to life as a vampire. They just didn’t care enough about the character or the audience at that point to bother showing Sookie’s best friend’s final moments. And if they don’t care, how am I supposed to?
Comic books are notorious for making death trivial in addition to constant character resurrections, and are even worse because they usually broadcast the deaths of major characters months in advance so there’s not even any shock value in it. It’s just a blatant cynical attempt to manufacture a sales spike. Then, usually in time for the next movie featuring the character comes out, they’re back just like that and carry on like nothing happened. The Simpsons has done this as well, making a game out of letting the audience guess which minor character will meet their end. The show is satirical, but the way they handle the deaths is often sad, making for an uncomfortable mix of tragedy and comedy.
Do: Make the Audience Feel the Loss
Remember when this was amazing graphics?
When a character dies, it should be a sad thing, assuming that character isn’t a serial murderer or rapist or a Justin Beiber stand-in or something. If you don’t care about a character’s fate, how are you even invested? Everyone who played Final Fantasy VII back in the day remembers it as the first video game to make grown men cry. When your party’s healer and protagonist’s love interest gets shish-kabobed by the villain, you felt that shit. It was so shocking, it almost didn’t even seem real because video games just did not do that. Players spent years insisting there was some secret way to bring her back. The game rubbed it in by giving you items that were meant to be equipped by that character. But nope. That time, dead was dead, but we never stopped looking. That’s how you do it.
The Walking Dead has proven adept in every medium. The comics have always revolved around nasty demises for its characters, and you feel every one. The image of Glenn’s head being smashed into mush with a baseball bat isn’t leaving me anytime soon. The television show mixes it up with the characters and one of its defining moments was after half a season spent searching for Sophia, the lost little girl shows up as part of a zombie horde that was stuck in a barn right under their noses the whole time. And Telltale Games’ video game series is possibly the best of all. Between choosing which character has to die to a sudden, unavoidable bloody end for a love interest just as things were getting interesting to the heart-rending finale of the first season, there are just way too many gut-wrenching moments to recount here.
Don’t: Tack on a Happy/Dark Ending that Ruins the Story’s Integrity
Oh look, everybody important to the hero is alive….how boring.
In Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds, there’s a scene where the protagonist’s shithead of a son runs off to be stupid or something right into a nuclear explosion. It was probably best for everyone. The hero got his dramatic loss, the audience didn’t have to listen to the kid bitch anymore. Win-win. Now I find it hard to believe that the same guy that made the aforementioned Schindler’s List decided to end a classic story about murderous aliens by miraculously resurrecting a character that nobody missed even a little bit in the last scene for an unearned happy ending to a genocide story. Lose-lose.
On the other end of the spectrum is The Mist, in which a father spends literally the entire movie defending his son from all sorts of danger to escape into the titular mysterious monster-infested fog only to drive off into the middle of nowhere and kill him and the other survivors. Is this the same character? How? It’s probably the biggest “f*** you, audience” ending in the history of cinema and so out of whack with everything that came before it that it pretty much refused to allow me to take the film seriously, although I had been enjoying it very much right up to that point. Night of the Living Dead and I Am Legend (the book, not the movie); now that’s how you earn a dark ending. You can’t just tack one on for shock value.
Do: Shock Us
Some of the most memorable moments from fiction have come from killing off lead characters or from having those characters do unspeakable things. Stories like Hex, which killed the star early in the second season without warning or A Game of Thrones, which set up Ned Stark as the hero only to have him become a victim of his own magnanimity and lose his head for the trouble, create tragedy gold this way by utterly defying audience expectations.
When we don’t see something coming, the impact is so much more memorable. The depths that Walter White sank to over the course of Breaking Bad, Frank Underwood’s spontaneous act of murder in House of Cards, and the hero of the popular anime Code Geass gunning down the angelic princess that was his childhood friend are the kinds of moments that make for unforgettable fiction. Unexpected brutality that makes us question the people we were rooting for is an increasingly effective tool for making an audience think beyond good and evil, and how we get true art.
Don’t: Overdo It
Yes, that is a marker for each death.
But like I said before, repetition equals comedy. While the first book in A Song of Ice and Fire and the respective opening season of Game of Thrones were an instant hit partly by the willingness to go there, after a while the constant death and then occasional resurrections and fake-outs became a running joke. It’s one thing to slowly kill off your cast, but when you bring in characters who bring the dead back to life and the like, it starts to become eye-rolling because the author is tempted to kill everyone (or pretend to) just to bring them back and again we’re having our cake and eating it too. Death is meaningless if it can be undone on a whim.
Kill ‘em all, but don’t let God sort ‘em out. You’re the author; that’s your job. Dealing with death is an important part of drama and as a plot device it’s not going anywhere. Just do us a favor and do it right, ‘kay?