Death as a Tool in Genre Storytelling

Warning: Spoilers for Gail Carriger’s Timeless, George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games, and everything by Joss Whedon. Lots of spoilers. Seriously, don’t read on if you don’t want to get spoiled.

Spend enough time watching the Master, and you start to expect the sudden, soul-crushing deaths of your favorite characters – particularly when nearing the end of a series. Sometimes I have to remind myself that not every writer has Joss Whedon’s love of sticking a knife in my gut vis-a-vis killing off a beloved fictional hero. Unfortunately, it seems that for a genre story to achieve any sort of legitimacy from the wider world, death is the key. Not just any death, mind you. To really achieve mainstream acclaim, that death must be a) shocking, b) of an innocent, and c) as a result (direct or indirect) of another hero’s actions.

Wholesale slaughter helps too, as if killing characters left and right is the only way for a genre story to get people to take it seriously.  Consider A Song of Ice and Fire, the fantasy series currently enjoying critical acclaim as the HBO series Game of Thrones. One of the reasons it’s doing so well on cable is the story’s central tenet: everyone is expendable. Many people who hadn’t read the books were shocked when default protagonist Ned Stark (played by the ever-mortal Sean Bean) was beheaded in the town square of King’s Landing before the first season finale. If the only honorable man in Westeros could meet the axe, then no one was safe.

Which is great for raising the level of suspense, but hard on those of us who wanted a character to root for who wasn’t completely compromised by politics. (There are still a few, but they’ll probably be killed too.)

And while I loved The Hunger Games trilogy, and don’t begrudge a book, movie, or television series its gritty topics (I love a good murder mystery), in general, if I’m going to devote several hours of my life to something, I want to come out of it with a smile or sense of satisfaction, rather than the conviction that everything in life is pointless. Suzanne Collins really got me when she killed off Prim in the final pages of Mockingjay.

It would seem I’ve been so well conditioned that I can’t even enjoy a steampunk-werewolf-romance satire without the emotional roller coaster. When I reached Chapter 17 of Gail Carriger’s Timeless and Lord Conall Maccon, werewolf, earl, and long-time husband to the main character plummeted from a hot air balloon above the Egyptian desert after having been shot, I was convinced it was for good.

Ordinarily, the fall wouldn’t be that big a deal for the werewolf, but due to circumstances of plot, he was mortal at the time. And his wife – known for her logical reasoning – was convincing in laying out the reasons he couldn’t possibly have survived. Followed by his absence from the next chapter, and coupled with the fact that this was the final book in this series, it seemed like the real deal – and not all together unexpected. Sad, unfortunate, and frustrating, maybe, but anyone who made it through the Jossed deaths of Jenny Calendar, Fred Burkle, Anya the reformed vengeance demon, and Wash the pilot, just to name a few, could see the emotional value such a death would have. And did I really think everyone would make it out of the grand Egypt adventure unscathed?

Well, yes, actually, and two chapters later Lord Conall Maccon turns up again, re-werewolfed and all healed, much to the relief of his wife. (Another character dies shortly after Conall reappears, but then turns into a vampire, so it’s okay.)

As I finished this witty, fun, romantic novel, I wondered if the undeath of Conall in any way lessened my enjoyment of the story. Would his permanent death, and Alexia’s struggle to go on without him have made this a more significant book? If their daughter had to grow up without a father, would knowing that make this ending stronger, albeit bittersweet? Or is it just fine and dandy that everyone has a happy ending? Why does death somehow equal depth?

For my tastes, there was enough conflict without having to add sacrifice into the mix. Which is not to say it wouldn’t have worked. I bought it. But I’m glad that it was a misdirection. I finished the book and felt content, but I’m still thinking about it. It resonated with me.

I read – particularly fantasy – for the escapism. There are a lot of unhappy endings in the real world, I don’t need them in all my fictional worlds too. Shades of grey are great – but so are romances that don’t end tragically. Sometimes, after falling in love with characters along the course of the series, it’s more satisfying to watch them ride off into the proverbial sunset than end up in the ground. But then, I’m a romantic.

This article has 4 Comments

  1. One of my current favorite book series is the Dresden Files. One thing I like about it is that while things don’t always go well for Harry Dresden, death is not too common for the supporting cast. If it does happen, it’s rare and usually a Big Damn Hero moment. It means something when it happens. Bad things happen, good people get hurt or relationships get strained, but death is a very final thing (even in a series about a private eye wizard) and as such it tends to be rationed out with great care.

    I absolutely adore Joss, but he does have a tendancy to put the “Plot immunity? What plot immunity?!” card a bit too often sometimes. They usually all work really well within the context of the story being told, but it’s become such a thing that it colors his work. I’ve heard lots of comments about “taking bets” as to who will die in The Avengers. Now I suspect the answer is no one, or at least no one of consequence, because Joss doesn’t own those characters and Marvel wants franchises. But I think it says a lot about how overdone the trope is, even outside Joss, that we’ve grown so cynical towards the idea of death in storytelling.

    1. I love the Dresden Files, and one of the things I really enjoy is that there are always consequences for Harry’s decisions, and they play themselves out over a long period, but everybody has to *live* with them. Are you current? Because I think it says a lot about the series that while the situation in Ghost Story is horrible, the strength and interest comes from watching the characters adjust to it, rather than just wondering who’s going to bite the bullet.

      1. Yeah, I’m current and yes, I was thinking along the same lines, as Changes and Ghost Stories were pretty monumental as far as the world that Harry Dresden lives in, but manages to do so in ways that keep the death toll fairly tiny.

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