Just Because Everyone Can Die Doesn’t Mean Everyone Should

Yes, if you live on a crazy time-travelling island populated by a monster and several unexpected groups of Others, or in a sentient ship that whisks you through space and/or time to places of improbable and exciting danger, or a place built on top of a Hellmouth, or Cardiff apparently, you are occasionally going to be killed, sometimes just for the lulz of the bad guy. And yes, if you got hit by a car in your debut episode and might possibly be in a coma, or an astronaut, death is something that’s going to come up once in a while. And yes, if you are a part time Mr. Hyde, there is always the lurking possibility that you are going to kill someone…for the lulz.

So from a realism standpoint, yes, it makes sense that occasionally you have to kill characters that people like. Sometimes it’s because there isn’t anywhere else you can go with them or because you need their death to advance the plot and make Willow evil. Sometimes — as in the ridiculously long and probably never-going-to-be-written series I am planning, it’s the only way you can end a character arc. Sometimes they just have to jump off a building to the music of David Bowie (as you do). These are all perfectly acceptable and meaningful reasons for killing a good character.

SO MY AUDIENCE CAN HAS TEARS is not. Even if you’re Joss Whedon, although you probably get some allowances by apparently being television god, if your legions are to be believed (we people of the Moffat are dissenters).

It’s a cheap shot. It’s eliciting an emotional response for the sake of an emotional response, which is okayIguess once in a while, but if you do it all the time you’re not going to get that emotional response anymore. The first time they pretended to kill Charlie on Lost, I bawled. I even cried when Boone died. Admittedly I have grown up somewhat since then, but aside from being a little upset that Lost would now be lacking His Adorableness except in the obligatory flashbacks, I wasn’t too terribly bummed when they killed Charlie off For Good. I think I played up being bummed because I felt like I should be. I think I may have pouted in a bit when they killed off replacement!Charlie, or Daniel as they called him, but again, most of my sad was that it meant more screentime for weepy Jack and less (okay, none) for crazy nutso physicist.

One of the most annoying clichés of the horror genre is the slow creeping total silence lead up to somebody jumping out of a closet and loudly cutting someone’s head off with an unlikely implement (say a teddy bear). It’s annoying because we’ve all seen it a million times before and therefore know what’s coming, yes, but it’s also annoying because it’s a very obvious manipulation of the audience’s emotions. The entire point is to make us fear, which we tend to because we’re in the mindset. It falls apart because after the initial shock we quickly move on – it wasn’t unexpected or original so it’s hardly worth having nightmares about, or even remembering. It’s a superficial fear, and in the same way, the nth lead character death on a tv show or in a film leads to a superficial sadness.

And, OK, it’s fiction, but half the point of fiction is being able to identify with the characters, even the total bastards, and being able to root for them and like them and want to follow up on their adventures from week to week, or from one book to the next, or even just for the three hours that the film takes up. It’s really, really hard to do that if odds are good they’re going to be killed and cast aside just to make you a bit sad. Sometimes the good guys have to die, and we get that, but it doesn’t mean you have to make them die of fatal nosebleeds just for fun, or even mindwipe all of their awesome away due to some ridiculous technobabble that apparently doesn’t apply to 10.5 despite the circumstances being identical.

And frankly, I don’t think M16, the CIA, and the KGB combined ever had as high a death toll as some fictional groups. Real life has what we call “good days.” Some days nobody dies. Sometimes nobody kills you just because they’re a repressed nerd who should never have been sold a gun. Sometimes you don’t get offed by an unlikely case of the flu. Sometimes your Gay Lover doesn’t die tragically in your arms, even though it seems like nobody in the writing business is it all aware of this. Sometimes you go whole days without your life being in any danger at all, even if you’re married to Mr. Hyde. Sometimes you can go to a sporting event without being tortured by people in funny black robes who think that you’re impure. Sometimes even your supposed worst enemy repeatedly makes terribly weak excuses not to kill you when he gets the chance, and even saves your life on a ridiculous number of occasions, though admittedly this last one is usually true only if your worst enemy is the Master.

All of this leads me to suspect that these writers are either subscribing to an unrealistically dark view of the world, or believe that dark worlds inherently make better stories. The first is usually a symptom of being educated enough to realize that we as a species have some ridiculously massive problems and should probably have never come down from the trees in the first place, but not quite observant enough to notice that most people are at least benignly happy for most of the time anyway, and those that aren’t are often psychologically depressed. Most people get by, and tell jokes and go out with friends and like their parents at least a little bit and fall in love if that’s what they want and have very good sex without feeling guilty about it, or losing their souls. Most people, even in dangerous lines of work, don’t go dying all over the place, or weeping about all of their dead friends, because that doesn’t happen very often. Even children in third world countries who are probably dying of AIDS and starvation and being made to marry old men and have shockingly oppressive and disgusting mutilations made to their privates manage to crack a smile once in a while, and their lives (by all evidence-based standards) genuinely suck.

And as for the belief that this will make a better story: no it won’t. It will only prevent some groups of people from calling you out for being a crummy writer. You’re killing characters to make us sad instead of making an effort to come up with an emotionally powerful story in which nobody dies at all, in the same way that some people use an excessive number of expletives — or breasts — to avoid having to think up dialogue.

Sometimes people die, and sometimes your audience needs to believe characters can too. So have some realistic near-deaths, then maybe kill someone, give it a purpose and make it an important plot point or relate it to another character’s development, and then (for the love of Moffat) move on. Because sometimes, just sometimes, everybody lives.

(This is a rerun from my livejournal. Despite it being largely composed of nerdy fan stuff, I feel strongly enough about the main point to put it here.)


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