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:
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.