Friday, July 21, 2017

How (NOT) to Kill Off Characters

You've seen it coming a mile away.

They've hinted at it for the past thirteen episodes. Your favorite character has kept throwing themselves into the heat of the fray. He's gotten some bumps and bruises, but he's always come out okay. He tries to hide how badly the injuries are affecting him, but you know.

You know if he keeps this up, his days are numbered. And you know he'll keep it up, because that's the kind of person he is.

And then the moment comes: the sky boils with black clouds. Lightning tears across the screen. He steps into a fight you know he just can't win.

Someone tries to come to his aid, screaming his name--but he has to buy them time. He has to help them all escape.

He puts up a fight. It's valiant, it's bloody, it's brutal--

He smiles. And blood seeps across his shirt. And he falls to the ground.

The rain starts to fall, just as your heart finally shatters.


Or maybe you haven't seen it coming. She's the perky love interest. She's kept the protagonist on his toes the whole time. You literally watch this show just to see them.

And then suddenly, the villain finds out who she is and shows up in her kitchen late one night as she gets home from work. One cut frame later, and she's in a pool of her own blood, and those left behind are taking it all in with the same wide-eyed horror as your own.

Killing That Character

Killing off characters can be the bane or blessing of any story. It's powerful. It shifts the entire tale by sacrificing one single person. It grabs the audience's attention, makes a fictional world feel real and believable, and can even make the audience feel dramatically satiated (especially in the case of a villain dying). BUT...

Only if you do it right.

I've seen plenty examples of killing characters done right and done wrong in my time as an audience member. And if I could reach through the screen and grab the writers by their collars, these are a few things I'd beg them not to do.

Because they never end well.


Killing Them Off for No Reason

Sometimes you have a show that gratuitously murders its cast. It's like the writers come in with a butcher knife and go, "Hey, it's been a whole episode and a half, and only two people have died so far! Better fix that..."

Please, writers, if you're going to kill off a character--or any number of characters--please have a reason for doing so.

Ask yourself, what is killing off that character, or that group of characters, going to result in? Will it set up what kind of a world the audience is entering? Will it cause the main cast to feel despair and to nearly give up their quest? Will murdering little Susie cause Shane to swear revenge and take the first steps down a dangerous road that will transform him forever?

Killing a character should always be purposeful--even if it's killing a million unnamed characters who, for purposes of the plot, don't matter. There should still be a reason behind each character's death, even if it's a crowd-killer moment and the reason is as simple as "Show how horrifying and deadly this situation is by killing all these people."

If killing a character doesn't have any reason other than "shock the viewers," then writers, you've failed as storytellers. Nothing--NOTHING--should happen in your plot that doesn't cause something else to happen later down the road. Surprising your viewers may get you a spike in popularity, but it's not going to tell a great story long-term. That's because plots need to move forward, and they can't if you keep peppering your story with dead-end plots like pointlessly killing off characters.

I mean, really, killing that character didn't affect their family at all? What about their friends? Loved ones? That death didn't result in an investigation into the killer and anyone connected to the crime? It didn't cause the audience (or the remaining cast) to feel differently about the situation or to reassess something about the world, each other, themselves?

Then that character death was pointless, and we the people are gonna get tired of your shock-value shenanigans real quick.


Killing Them Off Even Though They're Important

Killing anyone in the core cast should affect at least one other core character. Or heck, the entire plot. Anything less than that will like a theft. Your viewers are going to feel like you just robbed them of someone important for no good reason. And writers, trust me, you don't want to make us viewers feel that way.

Easy way to let the shockwaves of that loss reverberate through your story? Make sure to have characters reference that person's death later on, however briefly. Let the surviving cast mourn. Show the family in a scene, struggling to move on. That alone lends a lot of credibility to your world and makes the audience happy that neither the world nor you forgot about our dearly departed core character.


Killing Them Off Because Life is Hopeless

Killing characters should never leave the audience feeling hopeless.

Leaving the audience worried about how things will probably turn out good? That's suspense, and we're totally cool with that.

But leaving us hopeless because we realize this entire story we wasted hours of our lives to enjoy is not going to have a good ending? No. Please don't do that.

I'm so tired of seeing stories kill off a character just to espouse the "Life is hard; no one cares" worldview. Maybe that's your cup of tea. Maybe that's what you believe. But it doesn't make a great story, because you could've just said that and not wasted our time getting us invested in a character you were just going to brutally kill off because you're angry at the world.

Now, can you kill a character and leave the cast feeling hopeless? Oh, absolutely. Please do that. Well, not all the time. Not every time someone dies. But you can give a suckerpunch to the survivors, leave them wondering how they'll make it through... as long as they don't remain hopeless. A moment of weakness is one thing. A moment that leads to everyone giving up isn't interesting.


Killing Them Off Even Though They Barely Got to Do Anything

...but they could have, if you hadn't killed them off so soon.

Oh, this is one of my ultimate story pet peeves: that one character who's been relegated to the background, but you've seen enough of them to go "You know, I really like So-and-So. I really hope they get more story time."

And then they die in the very next episode.

Wit Studio and Production I.G, via GIPHY This is just... it's wasteful. Writers, please, don't put a character in the story at all if they're not going to do anything while they're alive! It's mean to tease the audience with this character they barely got to know, a character who doesn't get to fill their potential, only to kill them off.

All right, I admit: Attack on Titan totally does this exact thing, but I don't give them flak for it. Why? What makes the difference?

Well, besides my own obvious bias (because I love the snot out of that show), at least they give me enough of who Marco is in the short time I know him. The show clearly paints a portrait of this kid: a devoted guy who feels a little lost when he encounters how intimidating the Titans are, but who still chooses to be brave and see the best in people. It's not a lot, and I would have loved more, but it was enough that it lets me accept his death--even though I still mourn his loss because I know it means I'll never know any more about him.

You know what exacerbates this killing-off-characters-early issue though? If the character in question has been nothing but a flat character with little backstory and only 1-2 defining characteristics, yet who's supposed to be close to the protagonist and/or a pretty important piece of the plot. This is the problem I ran into with the Books of Mortals series.

Triphon is a muscle-head jock sort of character, but he's got a bit of a soft side and loyalty in spades. He's one of the protagonist, Rom's, best friends, so of course he helps Rom with whatever crazy scheme Rom has in mind. Triphon helps save Rom's life on more than one occasion in the first book.

But Triphon gets little development beyond that. I have no idea what kind of a person Triphon is. Does he like cats? Does he laugh a lot? What's his taste in women? What was his family like?

Not a clue. And too bad I wanted to know more, because he dies. Twice, actually. Which brings up another point...


Killing Them Off Only to Bring Them Back... Repeatedly

Don't keep bringing characters back to life only to kill them off again, writers. This ruins our trust in you. Plus it's emotionally draining for us to get yanked back and forth like that. We don't care quite as much during the death scene when your character dies a second time; that's because we've already been through this song and dance. And let me tell you, by the third time or more, we're too busy rolling our eyes or making memes out of your story to care about your ridiculously blessed regenerating hero.


Killing Them Off Only to Bring Them Back... Once?

Okay, I'm split 50/50 on this one, because sometimes a resurrection plot can be incredibly satisfying and entertaining.

And sometimes it only happens because a character feels sad and cries some magic resurrection tears.


Sigh.

Side note: I adore Tangled, but this is the one mole on this beautiful face that I wish I could photoshop over every time I watch this film. Disney, you're better than this cliche!

Okay, writers--if you're gonna bring a character back from the dead, you'd better have a dang good pre-established way for how it happens, why it happens, and when it happens. Establishing ways of bringing characters back from the dead keeps resurrections from feeling like a deus ex straight out of your butt.

But the "when" is especially important if the resurrection relies on another character actively reviving the dead. If there's any time in-between the death and the resurrection, the audience is going to want to know why they'd bother waiting to resurrect the guy at all. Wouldn't that epic battle two scenes ago have been a ton simpler if we'd had Fighter McGuns alive to begin with? Why did they wait until the smoke cleared to bring him back?

Also, if you're going to bring a character back from the dead, you'd better have a good reason why they died in the first place. And, again, "to shock the viewers" is not a good enough reason. Remember, we viewers don't like getting our chain yanked.

Don't kill off a character if they're just going to get brought back to life and their death didn't mean anything.

Now, as I said, I'm pretty split on resurrection stories. Sometimes having a character dying and being brought back to life can be thrilling for the audience. Buuuut, again, it has to have a purpose.

Again, look at character-killing phenomenon Attack on Titan. In the first season, the protagonist Eren has spent five years of his life boasting he'll kill all the giant man-eating Titans that have destroyed his home and killed his mother and otherwise ruined life. And when he's finally about to become a certified soldier, he eagerly dives into battle with Titans only to watch the brutes devour his friends one by one. And then Eren's next.

It's a particularly horrifying moment in a pretty horrifying show. But then he came back.

And his death had a purpose.

Eren's death (or near-death? It's a little ambiguous) experience awakens a power he was otherwise completely oblivious to. The shock of the situation triggers his life-saving ability, which he then uses to rescue not only his adopted sister but also all of his remaining friends. And it also helps humanity not get totally annihilated in one battle.

So writers, if you've got a good reason for your character dying and coming back once--then your viewers are far more likely to give you a pass.

Just don't do it again, you dirty feels-manipulators.

---
Photos (in order of appearance):
    All other photos property of their respective owners and used under US "Fair Use" laws.

    From Him, To Him 

    15 comments:

    1. Great points about killing off characters.

      I seriously hate it when characters die only to come back to life repeatedly which is something I call DBZ syndrome. Seriously, most of the main characters die multiple times only to get wished back to life by the Dragon Balls.

      The whole killing characters off because nihilism is just bad writing and I hate how so many of those stories get such a free ride because so many people mistake pessimism for realism (and this is coming from a guy with pessimistic tendencies!). Game of Thrones is guilty of this on so many levels. Sure, people get murdered and their killers get free or a slap on the wrist in real life, but we don't need to see that all the time.

      As far as resurrections are concerned, I say do it once, but use it sparingly. I know Yu Yu Hakusho has it's flaws, but I did think it was good how it was a plot point at the beginning with Yusuke sacrificing himself in the first episode before getting his body back a few episodes later after he earns it from the spirit world. More often than not, I think most resurrections are done poorly.

      ReplyDelete
    2. Thanks, Curtis!

      I think referring to repeated resurrections as the "DBZ Syndrome" is quite appropriate based on what I've heard of the show, haha! I respect the show tremendously for what it's done for media, shounen--heck, even pop culture--but I do hear that's one of the show's large flaws. It's unfortunate, because that "syndrome" is the very thing that takes weight away from deaths in the first place. They don't mean as much if they have no consequences. There are absolutely ways to have the deaths still have consequences despite resurrection (the anime Log Horizon has a great example of this), but it's incredibly difficult to pull off. I'm still trying to noodle with this concept in a future book project of my own.

      I'm so glad I'm not the only one who's bothered by nihilistic character deaths! I almost wish I'd seen Game of Thrones if only to have a more specific example of this, but I already know it's not my kind of show for that very reason, haha. I understand you want to maintain realism in your material, but as you said, there's got to be a balance. If I wanted strict realism, I'd spend my entertainment time watching the news rather than enjoying fiction.

      I'm dying to watch Yu Yu Hakusho (no pun intended)! I'm really eager to see how they play with the resurrection concept early on like that. It's not frequently I see a story begin by focusing on resurrection while the overall story does not. Very interesting!

      Resurrections can be done right, but as I mentioned before, they're very hard to do without taking the purpose of the death away!

      ReplyDelete
      Replies
      1. I've called it DBZ Syndrome for years, but I've never been official with it (patent pending?). I know the Dragon Ball franchise especially DBZ and currently with Dragon Ball Super are popular and that Goku is easily one of the most famous anime protagonists, but DBZ really cheapened the Dragon Balls themselves. Compare that series to the original Dragon Ball show and it's like night and day.

        Don't get me wrong, I like dark stuff in fiction, but even I have limits. If it gets bleaker than Texhnolyze (I really like that anime, but it is quite grim), then I get turned off. Good point about strict realism although some news sources are more reputable than others, and I'll leave it at that. Hahaha!

        Yu Yu Hakusho is a series I have some mixed feelings on. The animation is quite old-school since this came out in the early 90s. The paranormal concept and Yusuke's origin to being a spirit detective is quite unique and the super powers can be creative like the spirit gun (or rei gun if you want the Japanese name), but it devolves into Shonen Jump cliche-ville since there are 2 MAJOR tournaments and the first one is literally a season long. You've been warned. I prefer Yoshihiro Togashi's Hunter X Hunter series (I've still only seen the original though). Still haven't seen Level E yet either.

        Definitely. I'm personally concerned about not using them. I prefer deaths to stay permanent in fiction.

        Delete
      2. I've actually been getting more and more interested in checking out the original Dragon Ball manga--if I can find it legally in the States. That's always my big challenge with watching anime and manga, haha. Alas! But I hear the original manga was excellent if only for its page layout and character designs alone.

        I've seen some things that suggest Hunter X Hunter might not be my cup of tea, which is really disappointing since I continue to hear praise for it. I'm still relatively new to anime and haven't gotten bored of shonen tropes just yet, so I have a feeling I'm more tolerant of tournament arcs if done well. Still, two does seem a bit much! I'm not really put off by 90's anime quality (one of my favorite anime is Trigun, a pretty good poster child for early 90's animation).

        Delete
      3. I haven't read the original Dragon Ball manga, but I've seen some episodes of the first Dragon Ball show. I know the original manga's been out for years in America, so that shouldn't be an issue. The original DB is far from perfect, but I liked how fighting wasn't always the main thing.

        I understand if you're not into HXH. The Dark Tournament in YYH lasts about 30-40 something episodes which gets tiresome even though there are some legitimately good fights in some of the matches. I'm not put off by 90s anime, but YYH isn't one of the best series out there.

        Delete
      4. Wow! 30-40 episodes of fight scenes does sound like a lot for my tastes. If I check it out, I'll be sure to let everybody know what I thought right here on the blog. ;)

        Delete
      5. Yes, it can be quite exhausting at times. I know the Dark Tournament has it's fans with the more hardcore Shonen Jump fanboys with the fight scenes, but they overdid it when they had another tournament in the last 3rd of the total series.

        Delete
      6. Haha, sounds like a few tournaments too many! Rather than long-running (and repeated) tournament arcs, what turns would you rather have seen the story take? Perhaps some more character development arcs?

        Delete
      7. It's been a while since I've dealt with YYH, but I wouldn't eliminate the Dark Tournament since there are some important things that happen. I would shorten it by dozens of episodes. Since the main characters are known as spirit detectives, I'd like to see more mystery elements and detective work instead of just random fighting for most of the show.

        Delete
      8. Sounds like a classic case of a story forgetting what made it compelling to begin with. While it can sometimes be interesting to follow a story find a new tack (especially a longer-running tale), I often find that the moment it shifts gears, I tend to begin losing interest. Would you say your experience with YYH was similar? But perhaps the Dark Tournament just overstayed its welcome, since you did mention that you would have shortened it and still found it had some redeeming qualities.

        Delete
      9. Definitely. I felt that YYH wanted to be DBZ later on in the story despite having a strong first season where it did it's own thing while still being quite Shonen Jump-esque. I liked this show way more when I was younger, but this doesn't hold a candle to a lot of anime I've still liked consistently or shows I never got to see then. It did overstay it's welcome.

        Delete
      10. That's so unfortunate! Always sad to see something lose its roots, but I feel it's worse when something loses its roots just to try to be like something else that's more popular!

        Delete
      11. Quite true. I really felt that it was following so many 90s Shonen Jump tropes and that trend continued with stuff like Ninku or even non-Shonen Jump related things like Flame of Recca which Studio Pierrot would eventually animate.

        Delete
      12. So unfortunate! It only continues the trend of trying to copy others in order to cash in. Hardly encourages creativity, hm?

        Delete
      13. Wow. I didn't realize I didn't respond to this comment. Copycatting is so bogus when you have everybody following the coattails of the flavor of the weak.

        Delete