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Death


Hello everyone. I've decided to start a blog, partly because it sounds amusing, and partly because I want to remind myself of everything I should be doing while writing. This blog will dispense whatever sage advice I happen to have to offer, along with the side tangents and other thoughts that come to mind while writing these things. I will have space at the end of each blog for a more condensed version of the advice, for the sake of clarity and really making sure I get all this stuff. I'm still working on making it look pretty, and I probably won't have it super fancy until sometime in January. Let's face it, I'm never going to get around to it.
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Death

Posted October 23rd, 2016 at 4:36 PM by Bardothren
Updated October 24th, 2016 at 12:35 AM by Bardothren

Huh, this thing still exists? Well, might as well make a random post in it since I feel in the mood. As far as a quick update on my life goes, not much has changed. I still have my job as a QA tech and I'm starting to build up some savings for the day I move out of my parents' house.

And I suppose it's only fitting, in Halloween spirit, to talk about the spookiest phenomenon on the planet.

Death


When it comes to making your audience care about the characters in your work, death isn't just your most powerful tool. It is your nuke. You have to be extremely careful when making the threat of death clear and present in your story, as it will irrevocably change the tone. But, if executed properly, you can create moments as tear-jerking as Pyrrha getting shafted or Maes Hughes getting shot by a copy of his own wife. Oh, and massive spoiler alerts for at least a dozen different popular mass media.

Let's start with mistakes and work our way to deaths that expertly mess with your head. And for my first example... Star Wars. No, not the prequels. Not the reboot either. The original, first movie. I have one simple question for you... did Obi Wan's death make you feel anything? While it is a surprising death, we never learn anything about Obi Wan before his untimely demise. And that brings me to Rule One of killing off a character.

Rule One: give your audience time and reason to care about the character before killing them off

From all the extra players in the Hunger Games to the three million people of Alderaan, if your audience doesn't have a reason to care about a character, they won't care about them dying. It's as simple as that. A non-Star Wars example includes Agent Coulson from the Avengers, whose sole purpose in the entire movie is to die and bring the Avengers together. Nobody cares about Agent Coulson because he had zero character development, and that's that. I like to imagine, instead, what would have happened if Tony Stark died during Loki's escape instead? I'll let you guys mull that one change over a little.

In Lucas' defense, he never imagined that his Star Wars film would ever have the popularity that it did, and as such, he had not planned a sequel for it. In my personal opinion, Obi Wan should have survived the encounter with Darth Vader, giving the Sith Apprentice a personal reason to hunt for the Alliance along with a more natural, less plot-devicey way of getting to Dagobah. Speaking of ghostly plot devices, let's bring out Rule Two.

Rule Two: use resurrection sparingly and wisely.

Bringing characters back from the dead takes the fangs from death and, if not handled properly, removes all the stakes and emotional tension that death establishes. For a deeper look into this example, let's delve into Sword Art Online.

For the record, I despise this anime. I think it's shoddily written and falls into a million narrative pitfalls. However, one of the few things it does right is establishing an early presence of death. While the unfortunate beta-tester whose name I didn't even bother to research or remember didn't have a lot of screen-time or character building, his death set the mood of SAO: that anyone, anytime, could meet their end at the business end of an Odagi. (Isn't it sad I remember the sword's name but not the player's? btw am probably butchering that spelling, oh well).

However, SAO throws that out the window with Yue - a character practically predestined for death. They have their fun together, muk happens, and Yue sacrifices herself... only for Kirito to whip up some technobabble BS straight out of his ass to save her. In short, after this point, SAO makes it very clear that it isn't willing to kill off any characters important to its core narrative. And it is at that point that any tension SAO had disappears. Because death is reversible in this world, death no longer matters. What makes death so potent, frightening, and emotionally evocative is its irreversibility. Little else in life can never be undone with enough effort.

I suppose it's fitting to keep using Star Wars and instead look at the reboot. Let's see what J.J. Abrams managed to fix with Han Solo's death (and yes, spoilers people, you were warned). Character we know and love: check. Irreversibility of death: check. So... does it do anything wrong? I'd say yes: anyone with any experience with stories can see it coming a mile away.

If we know a character's going to die, we resign ourselves of that fact and start to focus our attention on the remaining characters. Take, for example, any character prophesied to die. Would we feel anything once they suddenly died? It wouldn't seem as tragic because, in our minds, we couldn't see any other possibility for them. The most gripping part of death is imagining all the alternate paths they could have taken. But in my mind, I couldn't see any future for Han Solo. So, when he got chopped in half, I thought "awesome, what a cool moment", but I wasn't moved by it.

Rule Three: Make death surprising, but not too surprising

This isn't to say you should just randomly have a character die off. I mean, you could... but that uncertainty makes it harder for your audience to commit to your characters. If literally anyone could die off at anytime without any warning, then why bother investing in those characters? It's harder to think of an example for this one... lemme know if any of you think of a good example of this.

Another example of an unsurprising death includes that little girl from the first Hunger Games. I mean really, who didn't foresee the cute little girl getting murdered in the juvenile deathmatch slaughterhouse? She was only there to tug at heartstrings, and that's precisely why she failed to make me feel anything.

Okay, moving on. Let's deconstruct some really powerful deaths and try to piece together what makes death so compelling.

Let's start with RWBY, in honor of the start of the new season. And no, I haven't seen it yet, so no spoilers please. I'll only be spoiling season three, so for those of you that haven't seen it yet... then what the hell are you doing reading this? Close this page and get the hell on roosterteeth.com, bring up RWBY, and bingewatch the muk out of that sweet, sweet miracle. Don't get me wrong, the animation is pretty bad and the characters are the 'you love 'em or hate 'em' sort of bunch, but man do they know how to make some interesting plot. While I wouldn't say it's better than Avatar or Steven Universe, it does have one edge over both of those series - it can tear your heart to shreds with death.

Spoiler: First RWBY spoiler
Let's start with Penny's death. Unexpected yet not surprising? Check. While it presents the possibility, it feels like there's a chance it could be stopped until it actually happens. Care about character? Check. Penny isn't the most well developed character, but she's had more than enough screentime to get invested in her.

My gripe with this death is this: robots can be rebuilt. Killing off robot characters is problematic, because you automaticall open up the possibility of resurrection. Let's throw in a Pokemon anime reference too - Clembot. Pokemon makes it far plainer that Clement's going to rebuild him when Clembot gets busted. While RWBY isn't as blatant with that promise, that idea lingers. If Atlas had the technology and desire to build her in the first place, why not rebuild her?

A middle-road approach is memory loss. It is a fairly cliche idea, and one that Pokemon used as well. Having a robot lose their memory after destruction does leave a lot of interesting directions for the narrative to take - but make no mistake, amnesia does not equal death. Amnesia changes the character while death hacks them from the narrative entirely. And I suspect that RWBY will take a similar approach.


Spoiler: RWBY spoiler two
Let's contrast that to Pyrrha's death. Ho boy, did this death make my heart explode. It hits every single one of the checkboxes - Pyrrha was my favorite character out of the entire bunch. Her development, in my opinion, was the most nuanced and carefully detailed of the bunch. She loathes how powerful she is, and she refrains from using it not because she's trying to be sneaky and catch opponents off guard, but because she doesn't want to be more isolated than she already is. Her incredible fighting ability makes her a goddess in the eyes of those around her, and as such, people don't see her as another person just like them. Additionally, she ironically resigns herself to this fate - despite having all that power, she feels powerless to dictate her own actions. She feels shackled by her power to commit herself to the greater good, becoming the best Huntress in Beacon. And this complex is greatly exaggerated when she is asked to assume yet greater power and abandon what sense of self she has in order to serve the greater good.

And furthermore, her admiration and eventual affection for Jaune is borne of the fact that Jaune, despite not having any power like her, tries to uproot his fate. He fakes his way into Beacon and tries everything to put up the facade that he could one day be a Hunter like everyone else at Beacon. I think that, through Jaune, Pyrrha is trying to find the strength to change her own fate... which is why she was so crushed when Jaune said she should take Amber's power.

Wow, got way sidetracked. So, point is, there's a lot to care about in Pyrrha and the writers made bank on that. So, let's go through the checklist. Care about character? Double check. Irreversible? She turns to freaking ashes. How much more final can you get? Check and check. Surprising yet inevitable? You better believe everyone was shocked, and it's not the "oh look, a meteor hit my dog" shocking either. In short, I consider Pyrrha's death to be among the most flawless examples of death in narrative media that I can think of.


Now, let's compare that to Avatar.
Spoiler: Avatar spoiler tags inserted upon request
In all eight seasons of the Avatar universe, there's only a handful of deaths that come to mind... there's Tonraq and Noatak, Admiral Zhao (sort of), Jet... and that's about it. I'd say Jet's the clear winner here, but even still, does his death compel as much as the others? The problem is, he undergoes a pretty rapid shift from good guy, to villain, then another rapid shift from villain to sympathetic victim. In short, it's hard to sympathize with his character not because his death isn't tragic, but because his character at this point is ill-defined. Otherwise, it hits the marks - surprising but not inevitable, and irreversible to boot.


Another problem with Avatar is that death doesn't feel like a part of its world. Aang so often goes out of his way to avoid killing people, and so many healing methods and ways of cheating death exist, that it's harder to see death as a prominent feature of Avatar. That doesn't make it worse than RWBY - I already went on record to say I like Avatar better. I just feel that death is something that the creators would have wanted to explore were they making Avatar for a more mature audience.

As for other good examples, Game of Thrones is riddled both with excellent deaths and mistakes
Spoiler:
prophecized, inevitable deaths for the Lannister kids and a resurrection for Snow vs playing against the tropes and killing off the most prominent character halfway into the first book
.

Lord of the Rings actually fails when it comes to death in my book. There's three instances of death: Boromir (whose death is pretty tragic and heroic, but he was a scumbag most of the time), Gandalf (who got the resurrection treatment) and all the other random casualties of war (who don't matter). Oh, let's make a Rule Four while I'm thinking of it.

Rule Four: A few deaths is a tragedy, thousands of deaths, a statistic

It's a lot harder to care about general groups of people than it is to care about one or two that die, and I would liken that to what's known as Dunbar's number. Dunbar's number refers to a cognitive limit on the number of people that we are capable of recognizing and keeping track of. The number is estimated to be somewhere between 150 and 250 people. In other words, we are physically incapable of feeling the same level of emotion for individuals within a group of a million casualties than we are for that one person we got to know really well. While it's perfectly alright to have lots of people die in a story, keep in mind that too much death may numb the reader to it, especially if no one important dies. Case in point: three thousand nameless people die by the second episode of SAO - and it has all the feel of a statistic. It's extremely hard to care that 30% of the world's population died (which seems odd, given what reaction that would get in the real world), but that's because the writer didn't give the audience a reason to care.

Let's see... Gurren Lagann was absolutely genius when it came to killing off Kaneda, in its unpredictability, charisma of the character killed, and the impact it has on the characters and the story; Attack on Titan has problems making you care about the characters and brought back Eren (big mistake if you ask me); the death of L was too sudden and not earned in Death Note; Code Geass did kill Euphemia and Shirley (lots of points there) but also screws up by saving Cornelia and Gilford (the very end after Lelouch's death still leaves an awful taste in my mouth); Matrix also screws the pooch by saving Neo and Trinity, then killing Trinity randomly, then maybe? killing Neo - really hard to get shocked by death if you don't know when it'll be final or not; Harry Potter tried to get you to care about Snape after he died off and Diggory could've used some more character development before his death (maybe a presence in the earlier books), and Dumbledore's death wasn't terribly surprising but still gripping. I'd give the most points to Fred dying - holy muk, I still tear up when I think of George, tending the shop alone. Also, shout-outs to Mufasa, Bambi's mom, Bing-Bong, and Carl's wife, just to name the first Disney-Pixar ones that came to mind. Please forgive me if I forgot any in the five seconds I took to think of those.

Now, this isn't to say that death should be in every story. Just look at Steven Universe: it has yet to kill off a single character in the entire show, and yet, I'd say that's the best western cartoon I have ever watched. That's because it establishes emotional stakes without killing off its characters, but at the same time, death remains a subtle presence within the universe and a very possible event down the show's lifetime. It doesn't have to happen, but man would it knock my socks off if it did.

Other examples of awesome, death-free stories include Finding Nemo, the Incredibles, and Toy Story (great, now I have Pixar on the brain). Death isn't your only option for raising the stakes, it's just the most potent and most tone-changing. As I previously said, the heart of characterization is desire, and the heart of making an audience care about those characters is seeing them struggle for those desires. Death makes those desires unobtainable and replaces them with other motivations - revenge, serving the memory of a departed one, etc.

As a recap, here's my four rules of killing off a character again.

Summary:

Rule One: give your audience time and reason to care about the character before killing them off

Rule Two: use resurrection sparingly.

Rule Three: Make death surprising, but not too surprising

Rule Four: A few deaths is a tragedy, thousands of deaths, a statistic

The key to successfully killing off a character is to get the reader invested in the characters and the conflict they're in, and making the reader fully aware of the consequences of that death, as well as how it affects the other characters in your story.

And I'll wrap this one up with some questions:

Do you agree or disagree with any of my thoughts on the deaths listed, and why? And do you have any other deaths on your mind you'd like to express opinions about? Hit me up and I'll chat with you about it. Just remember that there are no right or wrong answers in opinions, and de gustibus non est disputandum.

I hope you all enjoyed that, that took way longer than I thought it would and now it's time for bed.
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Comments

  1. Old Comment
    0's Avatar
    "Take, for example, any character prophesied to die. Would we feel anything once they suddenly died? It wouldn't seem as tragic because, in our minds, we couldn't see any other possibility for them."

    This really depends on who is giving the prophesy. It also depends on how attached to the character people get. For example, say I have a really long idea for an anime ~>200 episodes. In the second episode, the main character is prophesied to die by say a mystic. Depending on the overall tone of the series, you can put that though in peoples minds, but still make it a shock at the end, because it seems like forever ago when it was prophesied that it just didn't look like it would happen. It could be a very gripping story, and people would grow attached and even believe the character would be fine, to have them killed at the end.


    "Now, let's compare that to Avatar. In all eight seasons of the Avatar universe, there's only a handful of deaths that come to mind... there's Tonraq and Noatak, Admiral Zhao (sort of), Jet... and that's about it. I'd say Jet's the clear winner here, but even still, does his death compel as much as the others?"

    Naotak is the earth bender, yes? If so, what the hell man, I'm watching Korra right now and you put RBWY or whatever in spoilers but not that? I liked him... :(

    Also, Zhao does not die, as shown in Korra, though you can't really say he's alive, ha.

    Otherwise good article.
    Posted October 23rd, 2016 at 6:41 PM by 0 0 is offline
  2. Old Comment
    Bardothren's Avatar
    Naotak isn't the earth-bender, so you have nothing to fear... and sorry about that one. Will spoiler that one off so no other must bear witness to avatar spoilers against their will.

    EDIT: as for the prophecy part, there will be exceptions to every single rule when it comes to writing. I will confess that the prophesied deaths in GoT are still highly enjoyable despite that sense of inevitability. It's not impossible to break the rules I lay out and still have a compelling character death, it's just harder.

    Double Edit: also, thanks for commenting and for the input!
    Posted October 24th, 2016 at 12:34 AM by Bardothren Bardothren is offline
    Updated October 24th, 2016 at 2:11 AM by Bardothren
 

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