Monday, October 1, 2012

On the power of death in fiction

Death in real life is rather a potent thing when it is happening to ones you know. Its impact upon an individual lessens though, the more distant it becomes and also the more someone becomes used to the idea of people dying. But death nearly always remains a big kick to the heart for those watching loved ones leave them.

In fiction death is somewhat similar. The deaths of main characters we're close to and wrapped up in are the most potent. Then come those we see as red shirts of even the rattled off stats that result from Darth Vader blowing up a planet. These deaths mean little to us except as plot devices and sometimes points of humour. The further from the main character the death is the less we care. Purely because it is through the main character's eyes that we see the world.

In this way the vast majority of deaths in fiction mean almost nothing to the reader or watcher. They are just things that happen and the drama of a scene comes mainly from the main character's reactions or even their ability to avoid death while everyone else succumbs. Death in this instance is nothing much but a plot device or a reflection of reality so we can understand our own.

Which leaves the most contentious problem with death. That is the death of a main character. In modern fiction, with all its varieties, there is a distinct possibility for the character to die, nearly die or die multiple times on a reader or viewer. Traditionally the deaths of main characters are used to tie up a story and the near deaths to create drama and demand our attention as the problems revolving around the near death are resolved.

This is what we've expected from our fiction for most of our reading and watching history. And by our I mean all our storytelling history. Only occasionally would a character die more than once and in such cases it was less for drama and more for the point of maintaining mythology or highlighting a power structure. The repeated deaths weren't solely for the sake of creating drama that entangled the audience further in the story.

Today, as you can guess from previous remarks, there is a plague of never dying yet constantly dying characters. They die for cliff hangers. The die multiple times in a row so that their real deaths have more impact than their previous ones or the deaths of those around them. And they die and return continually so that the story can continue and be cashed in on. 

Now here's where main character deaths become a little strange in their impact. There is a large response to the first deaths of course, as can be expected when someone fairly close to you dies. This is because of the identification and connection many of us build with main characters. But this uproar at a character's death diminishes as the character continues to die and return. The connection we build and our understanding of their situation is gradually severed as none of us in reality have such luxuries. At best someone resuscitates us one or two times and we suffer. Rarely do we come back kicking and fighting and totally whole again.

To the audience, the main character's importance slowly becomes like that of the video game POV character. We end up counting damage and expecting monsters to pop up to blast away. We sit back and become lulled by the repetitiveness of the story. The reasons we continue to watch or read become less drama orientated and more to just find out how it ends, to continue our lifestyle patterns of sitting down at a certain time of day and watching a certain show, because the characters are known while other stories demand we restart with new ones.

When a character dies not just once or twice but six or seven times, maybe even more, there is little sympathy or empathy left for most of us. In fact, there's a little relief that the story is finally wrapped up. Or that the character can be changed so the story moves on with a so called fresh start. To overcome this relief the writers and creators of such stories try to recreate the impact of the main character's first death by making the final one special is some way.

Stringing out the final death scenes, killing them to have them pop up again to be killed once more, creating stranger and stranger death scenes are all ways of making sure the impact returns to what it once was. Unfortunately, such devices don't work well. We are shocked, maybe, when they pop up again but only because of the adrenaline rush and not the event. We get tired mid strung out death scene and begin to not care whether they end up dying properly or not so the final impact is one of relief, detached acceptance or what can be rather accurately described as a state of "meh". And finally with stranger death scenes we become a little too interested in how they die more than the fact that they die.

So with this bland result becoming known some writers have gone to the extent of killing of their characters one after another. The deaths aren't repeated but rather happening at a rate faster than we're currently familiar with, drawing us in by way of curiosity over who's going to bite the bullet next if not for the various character's actions while they're fleetingly alive. This is all well and good for a while but some audience members will become detached from a story once their favourite character dies as they just don't give a damn about the others and some audience members will detach from the story because there's just too much to keep track of, too many characters disappearing and too many high tension points that cause stress. Where's the point of relaxation if the multiple death's are written well? The impact of maintaining of an increased level of tension is another matter to write about but I will say that when it is created through the application of death that it can be wearing on the system. And wearing is just a step to the side of tiring with a similar result.

All in all, it has actually come to the point where I don't recommend the use of repeated death as a way of creating drama. Death's impact is always greatest in its first instance. Its power only remains for about one more turn but that turn needs to be final. Its impact is also increased by the fact that it isn't a daily or weekly occurrence. This does mean that the art of storytelling has to take a bit of a step back as far as many of those writing and creating now are concerned. But really, the devices we use to repeatedly bring back characters, like time travel and magic and futuristic medicine remain and can be used at any point to create drama that doesn't involve the main characters repeatedly dying. Remember, this applies to main characters only so the mass deaths of red shirts and the unknown can continue on as usual as far as I'm concerned.

Although, just how many times can New York be destroyed before we just don't give a damn?

Oh, and just as a little note: the story is about life not death. There isn's as much in death as there is in life unless you're into writing on mythological subjects.

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