Michaeline: The Lazarus Tool, or Bringing the Dead Back to Life

Resurrecting Lazarus, or any dead character, is tricky, but it can be done. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Resurrecting Lazarus, or any dead character, is tricky, but it can be done. Image via Wikimedia Commons

There’s this old joke (old in internet years, anyway) that goes like this: Josh Whedon, George R.R. Martin and Steven Moffat walk into a bar . . . . And everyone you ever loved dies. See the meme cartoon here:
http://i.imgur.com/ekVb1rE.jpg

Killing beloved characters has always been a thing. Everyone except 20th century Americans seem to love this stuff. I suppose, as a writer, there’s a lot to love. Almost everyone has had a loved one die at some point in their lives, so there’s a common human experience that the writer can tap into. Dying is intrinsically interesting – people rubberneck around accidents or hover over a deathbed. There’s something about death that makes us sad, interested, and want to help. And also, the threat of death causes characters to act in interesting ways. Day-to-day, they are just trying to get by. But when faced with death, they are trying to preserve their legacy, protect their families, or simply trying to not die. The actions that result from that can be amazing and heroic.

And of course, if the writer really goes nuts, the writer can bring the dead back from life.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I like the way MaryJanice Davidson kills off Betsy in the first chapter of Undead and Unwed. Sweet, ditzy Betsy, who can barely make it through lunch efficiently, comes back to life (unlife?) as Queen of the Vampires.

Lois McMaster Bujold also kills off her beloved hero, Miles Vorkosigan, in the first chapters of Mirror Dance, which plunges the reader into one of her darkest, yet deepest and most rewarding, adventures as Miles’ clone brother, Mark, gets a chance to take the narrative spotlight and redeem himself. Spoilers: Miles lives (thanks to the advanced cryogenics of the future), but it is Mark who resurrects himself.

On the other end of the scale, we have deaths and resurrections that happen for Doylistic reasons (reasons of the author, not of the story). Perhaps the most famous is at Reichenbach Falls, where Sherlock sacrifices his life in order to bring down his enemy in “The Final Problem”. But then Sir Arthur Conan Doyle found that the new letters of annoyed fans were much worse than the old letters of fawning “more, more, more” fans, and brought Sherlock Holmes back to life. Or maybe he just needed a break from Sherlock and overreacted by killing him. I’m sure the fans were grateful for Sherlock’s return, but I always feel it was a bit of a cheat.

Countless comics and escapist pieces have played with death – faking death, or actually killing characters, then bringing them back when needed. Sometimes bringing them back only to be killed again. In the superhero genre, I think this has turned into a convention, and a fan doesn’t work up much resentment unless it is done very poorly. Since it’s a “Thing”, it can also be played for humorous effects. It seems it’s often done to boost circulation and create publicity. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comic_book_death) Wikipedia reports: Similarly, in the Endangered Species series, Dark Beast says on being told that Jean and Nate Grey are dead, “Well, yes, but with that family, I’ve found it’s best to get frequent updates. Exactly how dead, at this moment in time?”

Getting back to our bar-going trio of the first paragraph, I hated the death at the end of Josh Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Now, I will be the first to admit that it was a brilliantly constructed story. And it was a death that Had To Be. And Whedon played fair with us (mostly) by not hiding stuff from us. We know this young, confused boy is going to grow up to be a horrible, evil villain. We know this intellectually.

But in our hearts, we see a dorky goofus (you may have seen yourself in his character; I know I did). Oh, the kid isn’t that bad. He’s hopelessly in love, he’s being bullied by a stupid jerk, we all know how this story ends, don’t we? He grows, he gets the girl, and he saves the world, right?

It rarely happens that way in real life, which I suppose is the point that Whedon is making. It doesn’t usually end in guns and bloodshed, either. We know how THAT bloody story goes as well, and the protagonist is not an adorable, angsty kid. S/he’s a disturbed, brooding kid. OK, OK, yeah, yeah – it rarely happens *that* way in real life, either.

But gosh, I wish he could have been a hero.

Speaking of real life: it’s been a bad year for celebrity deaths so far. So many beloved and influential people have died. Wouldn’t it be a great story if we all found out tomorrow (or better yet, on April 1) that it was all a giant Illuminati hoax or something? Nobody died at all, and they were just hanging out on some island, having a bit of a rest before coming back to the broader world.

On the other hand, wouldn’t it be horrible if the zombie apocalypse was coming, and it only affected celebrities? Zombie-David-Bowie, Zombie-Natalie-Cole, Zombie-Alan-Rickman, Zombie-All-the-Other-Guys, coming back to eat our brains, devour our creativity?

Brrr. No. No, that is just a story. It’d never happen.

Sigh. It’s kind of sad, though, that I have to stop and reassure myself that it could never happen. Anyway, Death and Resurrection: powerful tools in your creative toolbox.

2 thoughts on “Michaeline: The Lazarus Tool, or Bringing the Dead Back to Life

  1. Real, final, once-and-for-all deaths of important characters, necessary to the story and used sparingly, must be one of the most powerful weapons in a writer’s toolbox, and maybe one of the most effective for retaining or alienating readers. There’s something comforting and fun about seeing a key character in dire straits and knowing that somehow they’ll be fine in the end, however improbable that seems. If you know the writer is Prepared to Go There, the emotional experience of reading the same scene is quite different, even if the character survives. I’m sure I remember Michille saying in the comments here that there’s an author she doesn’t read any more because of the author’s willingness to kill off much-loved characters.

    The Lazarus Tool, OTOH. Fine and fun in comics and supernatural stories, but mostly I find the gotcha/just kidding/it was just a dream/let’s turn back time/kill the doppelgänger trick infuriating, because it’s so manipulative – putting the reader through the emotional wringer for effect. I love Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, and there are some brilliant, moving and necessary deaths along the way, maybe about one per book, all of which contribute to the hero’s arc. But the final book which resolves the whole series depends on a Lazarus that I don’t love at all. It made me feel that character who died and their extensive sub-plot was reverse-engineered to create the Lazarus opportunity, and that made me mad.

    As you said, powerful tools 🙂 .

    • This is a great point. If you know a writer can kill a beloved character, it certainly changes the way you read books. For me, I think it’d put the writer on my “buy with extreme caution” list.

      But on the other hand, if the death is at the beginning, and is absolutely essential to the plot, I often really like that. Especially if the dead turns into a snarky undead.

      I wonder if there’s a connection between this and the old amnesia plot? In a sense, a character with amnesia is undead; they don’t know who or what they are. And when they are resurrected (ie: their memory comes back), things can get really interesting as they try to figure out the difference between who they think they are, and who they really are. I love that sort of puzzle.

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