Don’t Fear the Reaper

ned stark

   Sean Bean: Patron Saint of Dead Characters

As mentioned last week, we’re currently excited about the CW show The 100. Back at the mid-season finale, the show killed off a member of the main cast (who we particularly like), so we’ve naturally been thinking about when it’s a good idea and when it’s not to kill a character and how you ought to go about doing it. We won’t mention the specifics of the death on The 100, because it still falls under the statute of limitation for spoilers, as it were, but we agree that the show handled it really well. As much as we will miss the character and the cast member, it solidly hit the Three Keys to Offing the Ones You Love.

1) Would it be intellectually dishonest not to kill the character?

Would you have to twist the plot in unbelievable knots to keep the character alive? Would it make your villains look weak and ineffectual? Is death, in other words, the logical outcome of where you have taken the story?

2) Is it dramatically the right choice?

A continuation of the first question, does the story gain by the death of the character and the way in which you kill the character? Which leads to…

3) Does the character dying have interesting repercussions for those left alive?

If you can kill a character and the rest of the characters don’t seem a whit different because of it, there’s a fundamentally bigger problem. Still, thinking about the interesting possibilities for the characters going forward can help make the often difficult decision to kill a character a little easier.

So, examples. Obviously there are spoilers below, but we’ve decided Julius Caesar, Battlestar Galactica, and A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones are fair game. Still, if you haven’t read/seen any of these and don’t want spoiled, consider yourself warned.

Julius Caesar

To the surprise of generations of schoolchildren, the title character dies at the beginning of the third act (out of five, of course). But that’s because he’s not actually the protagonist of the story; Brutus is. Moreover, you know he has to die because, well, it’s based on a true story, and as far as we know, that’s how the real Gaius Julius Caesar died. If Shakespeare had made Brutus and the other conspirators have a change of heart, or if his Caesar somehow recovered from his wounds, the audience would be sitting there thinking, “Wait, he’s supposed to die, isn’t he?” It simply wouldn’t be credible for him to live.

Killing Caesar in the third act is the right choice dramatically, as well, because as previously noted, it’s actually a play about Brutus, not Caesar. If the assassination were in Act IV or V, then the consequences of Brutus’s decision to help kill his friend would have to be wrapped up in only one or two scenes, rather than half the play. The repercussions of Caesar’s death drive the plot for the rest of the play.  In fact, if he doesn’t die, you don’t have a play at all.

Battlestar Galactica

Plenty of people die during the run of this show, but two deaths stick out as being especially problematic: Callie and Starbuck.

Problem number one with Callie’s death is that it made everyone watching happy. In fact, until we asked a friend, we couldn’t even remember why she had been killed. This very much falls under “fundamentally bigger problem.” Her death didn’t need to happen, but was manufactured as a fan service so that the rest of the characters could go forward without having an annoying character getting in their way. She started off the series as a perfectly fine bit player the writers seemed to let get out of control somewhere along the way.

Starbuck is an even bigger problem. She began the show as a fan favorite of everyone who didn’t have trouble getting over Starbuck being a woman. Then near the end of the third season, she went insane for no reason and “killed” herself. The characters left behind seemed to be in something of a muddle without her, so at least her “death” had some impact. Until the writers undercut any drama her “death” caused by bringing her back to life. Sort of. Starbuck’s “death” reeked of poorly planned shock value that didn’t bear any relation to the character or the plot.

A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones

George RR Martin may be responsible for more character deaths than any writer in history, so it’s unsurprising that sometimes he’s been successful, and sometimes made questionable decisions. His two most famous provide an example of each.

We are not fans of the Red Wedding; let’s just get that out of the way. Looking at the 3 Keys, it fits the first, mostly—it is intellectually honest that Walder Frey would kill Robb Stark. Or at least try. Robb and his men have proven themselves sufficiently badass that had Robb lived, we would have bought it. And dramatically, it is quite a moment, but it’s the last interesting dramatic moment in the series for us, because who cares how it effects the characters left behind? Who cares who wins the game of thrones? We, the readers (and viewers), were invested in the Starks winning, and when Robb dies, we don’t care anymore. And other than the Lannisters having one less thing to worry about and Arya sailing off to Braavos, how much do any of the characters care that Robb Stark is dead?

But you can’t say the same of Ned Stark’s death. This is how to kill a character. It would be incredibly dishonest and make the mighty Lannisters look incredibly weak if Ned Stark fails to die. And the drama in that moment is heart wrenching. Plus, so much of what matters in the moment of his death is how it will change the lives of his children, most importantly Robb. Everything about Ned Stark’s death accomplishes precisely what a writer (and reader/viewer) hopes it will.

~J and S

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6 comments on “Don’t Fear the Reaper

  1. Dennis Royer says:

    Hello JS – I stumbled onto your blog from the #asoiaf Twitter feed. Your reasoning here is well thought out. As a writer, I’m always concerned about the impact of killing off a character. As a reader, I feel cheated when it is not done properly.

    One disagreement I have is with the death of Robb Stark. This removes an impediment to the rest of the contenders for the Iron Throne and amps up the conflict between the remaining players. Yes, we were invested in the Starks winning, but stay tuned. It still might happen! Arya is out of the picture for now, but Sansa has matured and grown more cunning. Many of us are emotionally invested in Jon Snow. He swore an oath, but who knows? Bran has a different destiny, but what about Rickon? He’s a sleeper. All I’m saying is there are a lot of Starks sill running around. Anyway, that’s all speculation and only GRRM knows.

    Here’s a different example for you to consider. As much as I love LOTR, I would have to say that it is intellectually dishonest that Frodo and Sam live after completing their mission. It’s just too much of a stretch.

    I wish you well with your writing.

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  2. jsmawdsley says:

    Dennis,
    Thanks so much for the comment!

    So, the Starks. I have to disagree about Sansa, given her Stockholm Syndrome. And Bran is busy with the storyline that’s probably the more important in the long run to the people of Westros, because as interested as J and I are in the game of throne, I don’t think GRRM is as much as the return of magic and White Walkers, etc. I suppose Rickon could emerge as important, but frankly, my money is on the return of Arya being the only thing that might make a difference. As far as Jon Snow, I’m hoping he’s dead, because I’ve never been a fan.

    But more to the point of what we were trying to say about killing characters, I think you mile may vary on Robb Stark’s death based on whether you’re interested in Westros and magic or who sits on the Iron Throne.

    LOTR. I would agree if it were not for the fact that what happens at Mount Doom is JRRT’s eucatastrophe, literally Deus ex machina. If this were not the case, you would be absolutely right, but JRRT had something else in mind.

    Hope to see you here again!

    ~S

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  3. Great stuff! Tell us more about the implications of the 3 keys in general and/or for your own work. I was hoping for a final synthesis of ideas and what the examples show (next post, perhaps?), and I would love to learn more about this topic from your perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. stefan says:

    I see the argument for tragedy as realism. As an alternative, it can work to allow characters to survive in improbable ways, if you first wound them severely enough. Living through emotional or physical torture can be worse than death, after all, and the survival and maybe even partial recovery can be more of a resurrection than a rescue. Frodo suffers more than enough, and then has to live with the knowledge of his ultimate failure–with the missing finger as a reminder that he was no better than his nemesis in the end. My other favorite author in this context is Tim Powers: Brendan Doyle (in the Anubis Gates) and Jack Shandy (On Stranger Tides, not the movie) go through so much brutality that their victories are justified, to my mind anyhow!

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  5. […] that we’re bloodthirsty or anything, but we sure like ourselves a good character death.  We’ve talked here before about when it’s appropriate, and sometimes even necessary, to kill […]

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