Tuesday 31 December 2013

Killing Main Characters, feat. The Deathly Hallows and Star Wars

Happy New Year everyone! What better way to see in 2014 than to talk about MURDERING YOUR CHARACTERS.

The way an author handles character death is often one of the most contentiously discussed issues amongst readers (and writers), and with good reason. Most people aren't particularly bothered when a nameless soldier or a snarling orc drops as part of a story's natural cannon-fodder quota, but when it comes to characters we've come to know and love over the course of a story, saying goodbye to some of our favourite fictional creations can prove to be very difficult indeed.

Some people are dead-set against killing main characters. They see it as unpleasant and emotionally trying; the sort of thing they'd rather avoid in their leisure time as much as possible. I'm the same way myself when it comes to certain sensitive topics, but I realise that that's a personal preference rather than one that should govern storytelling in general. Killing off main characters can be done in both the Right and the Wrong way, and I'd love to spend just a few minutes discussing the difference between the two.

So first off, why do we kill characters in stories? Like anything, it's to evoke an emotional response and/or move the story forward (ideally both). However, unlike most other plot devices, the killing of an established character draws a line under something you've spent pages, chapters, or even entire books building up. It's a risky move. You're building the most intricate house of cards you possibly can just so that watching it fall down will be all the more impressive when it finally happens. You need to time that final moment perfectly, and if it happens either too early or too late you're going to leave people feeling cheated and unsatisfied.

For me, one of the most horribly misused instances of character death in fiction happens at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. This has often proven to be a controversial opinion amongst the people I've discussed it with, but I firmly stand by my viewpoint on it to this day.

Without spoiling anything too much, at the end of the final Harry Potter book we're treated to an epic final confrontation in which a large number of supporting characters (many of whom have been present since very early on in the series) are killed off. On paper, this seems fine. It's the climactic instalment in a long-running series; the stakes must be raised, the drama must be heightened, and the tension must be stretched to breaking point, where the previously unthinkable happens and our heartstrings are wrenched in a way we've never experienced before.

The problem lies entirely in the execution. These character deaths are not relayed as a tense and dramatic series of events during the final confrontation; they are listed off after the plot has been resolved, like an obituary report. There is no room for the audience to take in the dramatic impact of what has happened, no room for the characters to grieve and be affected by their loss, no story to be progressed, and no tension to be heightened, since the plot has already been resolved by this point.

The strongest argument I've seen for the inclusion of these character deaths is one of tone. Deathly Hallows is the darkest instalment of a series that has grown progressively darker over time. Death, loss, and the brutal reality of Voldemort's new world order are all prominent themes by now. However, all of this happens in the final few pages of the book. By this point the tone has already been set, several main characters have died already (in far more appropriate manners), and it is far too late in the day to start turning the final book in the series into some grim statement on the realities of war. These deaths are further cheapened by the "happily ever after" epilogue that immediately follows, completely sweeping away any kind of tonal or thematic significance they might have had and leaving the loss of these well-loved characters feeling hollow and pointless.

In contrast, let's look at an example of character death being used appropriately in a story. I'm sure everyone is familiar with the original Star Wars, and the death of Ben Kenobi at the climax of the movie's second act. This is a death that serves many significant purposes not just in the narrative of the first movie, but its subsequent sequels as well.

First and foremost: Making the villain threatening. Darth Vader is often heralded as one of the greatest fictional Bad Guys of all time, a character that we love to hate, and this is in no small part due to his immensely threatening presence. When Vader kills Ben, we are shown in a very direct and visceral way that he is a force to be reckoned with. He defeats the wisest, most competent, and perhaps most morally upstanding character in the story, setting himself up as a foe who has not only ripped away the most grounding part of the central cast, but also as someone who is beyond even the most competent and effective member of our group of heroes.

Ben's death is also hugely significant in Luke's character development as the story's protagonist. As the movie enters its final act Luke is forced to stand on his own two feet for the first time in the story, without the guidance of an older, wiser voice of reason. He ceases to be a boy and becomes a man, proving that he is capable of succeeding beyond Ben's instruction. This also sets the stage for Luke's more rebellious and emotionally driven confrontation with Vader in the sequel, giving their duel far more emotional context and depth than a simple flashy lightsaber fight, and going on to enhance the impact of the "I am your father" moment, and the relationship the two characters then develop in the final movie.

The story of Star Wars as a whole is enhanced and enriched by Ben's death, whereas the same cannot be said for the myriad of deaths that occur at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

If you're gonna kill off your main characters you'd better be darn sure it's happening in service to the story at hand, because by default your audience is going to react negatively to it. Make that emotional investment worth it. Make it pay off, make it affect the story to come, make it influence our perception of characters and their motivations, and for goodness sake give us the breathing room to take in what has happened and have our own little emotional moment of grief and catharsis afterwards.

I could go on to talk about things like the effectiveness (and lack thereof) of shock value in fiction, but I think this post is already running on, so I'm going to leave it at that for now!
Happy New Years once again everyone, and I hope you all have a fantastic end to 2013!

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