Oh, my God, he did it again — and not once, but twice. I sat there staring at the dead body before my eyes and thought, I’m never going to trust this man again.
Thoughts about murder for art’s sake as well as spoilers for old seasons of Buffy, Firefly/Serenity, Alien 3, X-Men: The Last Stand, the Dutch version of The Vanishing, Dickens’s “Old Curiosity Shop” and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes below the fold.
Rumor has it that J.K. Rowling is going to kill off Harry Potter. LB, a hardcore HP fan, has assured me that such rumors are not to be trusted, but hearing about it did get me thinking — when is it OK (and, more importantly, not OK) for an author to kill off beloved characters?
Killing off fan-favorite characters has been a risky business for some time — just ask Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame. Weary of writing pulp fiction detective novels and wanting to devote himself to more “elevated” works, he decided to write an end to the famous detective once and for all.
Masterpiece Theatre | The Hound of the Baskervilles | Essays + Interviews:
In his autobiography, he confessed, “The idea was in my mind when I went on holiday with my wife to Switzerland, in the course of which we saw the wonderful falls of Reichenbach, a terrible place, and one which I thought would make a worthy tomb for Sherlock, even if I buried my banking account with him.” In “The Final Problem,” Holmes’s nemesis, Dr. Moriarty, pushes the detective over the falls to his death.
The response from fans was overwhelming… and strongly negative.
When the story appeared in The Strand in December 1893, newspapers ran headlines about Holmes’s death, and passionate fans wore mourning garb in the streets. Faced with such public outcry, Conan Doyle resurrected Holmes in 1901 in The Hound of the Baskervilles, though he set the novel retrospectively to avoid having to bring Holmes back to life… Conan Doyle revived him for his reading public, but forbade mention of his name within earshot. He spent his last years marginalized and misunderstood while his famous creation grew ever more beloved.
This intense response to the death of a fictional character is hardly unusual. Charles McGrath of the New York Times writes about the reaction to another such loss:
“Is Little Nell dead?” New Yorkers thronging the docks in the winter of 1841 called out to ships arriving from Europe, hoping for news from someone who had read the latest installment of Dickens’s “Old Curiosity Shop.” She was, though Dickens said that killing her off had caused him “anguish unspeakable,” and both here and in England readers wept in the streets. Daniel O’Connell, the famous Irish member of Parliament, was so upset he threw his copy of the novel from the window of a train.
And according to McGrath, this type of response continues to this day:
Readers overwhelmingly prefer happy endings to sad ones, according to a survey taken in England in March, and they particularly mind it when a beloved character, a Tess, a Beth March, an Anna Karenina, a Harry, for that matter, has to die. A number of those surveyed said that if they could, they would rewrite their favorite books and make them turn out differently.
I am certainly no different. I am drawn to works with engaging, three-dimensional characters — characters I would choose to be my own friends if they actually existed — and when their fictional selves shuffle off this mortal coil, I feel a real, and often profound, sense of loss. This is not to say that I can never find the death of a hero appropriate and satisfying — the ending of the Dutch version of The Vanishing comes to mind — it just has to be for the right reasons. And there are so many wrong reasons.
Sometimes beloved characters die at the hands of lesser creators — such was the fate of heroic space marine Corporal Dwayne Hicks and a resilient little orphan girl named Newt. These were two characters James Cameron got me to love in Aliens and their rescue was the payoff of that excellent action-adventure — but they were then dispatched casually, trivially and stupidly in the opening few minutes of Alien3. A similar fate awaited Cyclops in the third X-Men film. For the sake of such victims of hackery, I stand shoulder to shoulder with those in the survey mentioned above and long for a rewrite. (And, in truth, as far as I’m concerned, Alien 3 never actually happened — it was just one long, terrible hypersleep nightmare. Good luck to you trying to convince me differently. 😉 )
But when it is done by more skillful hands, when the death of a character is written by the creator herself, it is far more difficult to dismiss. Or forgive. Which brings me to Joss Whedon.
We learn about sacred trusts by having them broken. Chris Carter taught me about the promise a creator makes with his audience that he already has satisfying answers to all the interesting questions he is raising and is not, in fact, wasting their time on a shaggy-dog story. When did he teach this to me? When it became absolutely clear by the fourth season of The X-Files that he was making it up as he went along.
Joss Whedon taught me that an author has a responsibility for the lives of their creations that goes beyond whatever personal or artistic agenda he or she might have.
Love and Loss
It took some convincing for me to give Firefly a second look. My first viewing of the episodes when they aired on TV left me icy cold, but good friend and Firefly fanboy Bill S. knows where all of the bodies are buried, so he got me to give the DVDs a chance. And I fell in love — with the characters.
Now, Joss Whedon is an excellent writer and I almost always have had a good time watching his work, but Firefly was exceptional in that there wasn’t a single one of its nine member ensemble cast that I didn’t really like and want to know better. And I was particularly taken with the relationship of Wash and Zoë. Here was a married couple that was truly in love and right for each other — and yet, watching them was never boring. In fact, it was a delight. And when I heard the movie version of Firefly was coming out — Serenity — it wasn’t the plot that really called out to me (which seemed like a standard “save the galaxy” [or system in this case] affair), it was the chance to spend more time with these interesting people.
But Joss Whedon, talented though he may be, has his quirks. For example, he supposedly wrote the Emmy nominated “Hush” — a nearly dialogue-free episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer — because people told him the best part of his series was the dialogue and he took it as a left-handed compliment. More darkly, he seems to have a nearly pathological need to kill off some of his more well-liked characters, and often the deaths he arranges are senseless. As creator and writer of Buffy, he killed Buffy’s Mom Joyce, reformed demon Anya as well as the love of Willow’s life, Tara. In each case, the death was not proud — Joyce dies of an aneurysm without warning and Tara is accidentally shot to death by a bullet meant for Buffy. Anya dies defending the man she loves — which is at least something — but is dispatched by being stabbed in the back.
The body count in the movie Serenity was similarly dire — two main characters, Shepherd Book and Wash, nearly a quarter of the main cast — are killed within the space of an hour. Book wasn’t in much of the movie, so it didn’t come as too much of a surprise that he was used to ratchet up the drama through a dramatic, somewhat heroic death — but Wash is killed suddenly, randomly and without warning. His death serves no purpose other than to add to the anguish of his wife, Zoë — and, of course, to give the viewers the feeling that this creator has no compunction about killing off a beloved and interesting character seemingly for no reason, that with this creator “anything can happen.”
Always Keep Them Guessing — Right?
Well, isn’t that a good thing? Shouldn’t an audience always believe that the heroes in near-death situations are, well, actually near death for there to be any suspense at all?
I would argue no. There are lots of ways to add to suspense and lots of ways to make an action show fun and the thought that a character you like could really be offed based on a whim of the creator really isn’t one of them. Let’s face it — when you watch an action show on TV, how much do you believe that the lead character you see in danger really and truly is going to die in this mid-season episode? Hardly ever, right? Because it obviously would mean the end of the show.
It is my opinion that, in part, Mr. Whedon is reacting against exactly this assumption of the viewer and wants you to know that he has the balls to really deliver on his narrative threats. But the truth is, we get caught up in the action of TV shows just fine even though we know that the characters are almost certainly going to live. The challenge of a great creator of an action work isn’t to show the world that you are willing to alienate your viewers by killing off the hero — the real challenge is to make the show interesting when your viewers assume the character is going to live. And that’s a much harder and more interesting task.
Your Audience — Friend or Foe?
But still — in the end, they are the author’s characters — doesn’t she have the right to off them if she so desires? Supposedly, the reason Rowling is tempted to kill Harry is to avoid non-author created sequels to her books. Well, she owns him, right? Why not make that relationship permanent in death. Amber Benson, the actress who played Tara on Buffy, was always credited as a guest for the three seasons her character was on Buffy until the episode “Seeing Red” — the one she was killed in. Why? According to the Trivia section in Tara’s Wikipedia entry, “This was something Joss intended to do from the start – Kill a character listed as a regular in one of their first appearances as such.” Well then, if caprice figures into Mr. Whedon’s liquidation plans, who are we to object?
To be clear, I don’t think we should forbid an author from writing what he or she thinks is best, but if you want me to stick around for the ride, you have to show me some respect. As an audience member, I do not wield the God-like power of the creator of a work, but my feelings should matter. Respect my intelligence by knowing where you are going and by avoiding cliché. Respect my wallet by avoiding self-indulgence and laziness — I have come to you to be entertained and as a fan, I pay your bills. And absolutely don’t trifle with my feelings — if you make me love your characters through your brilliant writing, be aware that I will feel their loss, so don’t kill them without damn good reason.
Looking over his work as a whole, it is apparent that Mr. Whedon does try to respect my intelligence as an audience member, but I also have the strong impression that my feelings are largely irrelevant to whatever artistic windmill he might be trying to joust at any particular moment. Based on his actions, I am left thinking his creative mantra ultimately boils down to “Trust me — I know better than you do what is good for you.”
I respect Joss Whedon as a writer and director, but in the shadow of such arrogance, I have little interest in placing my affections into his hands again. The senseless killing of Wash — the latest victim in a string of senseless killings — has blown my trust in this man. I will admire his work from afar, but it will take even more arm twisting than my pal Bill S. is capable of to get me to become engaged in his art like before. The truth is, I just can’t be confident that he has the story’s or my best interests at heart.
Know What You’re About
So all right, — when is it OK to off your characters? Again for me the answer can be found by looking at the trust placed into your hands by your intended audience. If you are writing in the horror genre, your audience is prepared (and hoping!) for sudden, random and senseless death. Are you penning a heavy existential graphic novel? Same thing. But if you are writing in the action-adventure genre, especially if you follow the same characters through a number of works — which is a category Firefly, most of the planned Yaoi 911™ works and yes, even Harry Potter fall into — the expectations of your audience and their reasons for coming to you are different. Using the death of a beloved, main character as a mere tool to bump up the tension for an individual story is not going to enhance that story for your audience, it’s going to leave them feeling cheated. If the character must die — and I would argue strongly that she should only die if it is absolutely necessary for the sake of creating a truly satisfying and effective work when that work is considered in its entirety — then I believe the death should have the same impact on the world of that character as it has in the heart of the reader. Anything less and your audience is going to wonder how seriously you take your work — and them. The hero sacrificing herself for the sake of the Universe might be convention, but the reason for that convention has to do with care and concern for the feelings of the reader.
Now, as a creator trying to make your mark, you may feel the need to try to break convention — and you might believe that this desire alone is a good enough reason to give your action hero a senseless death. But some conventions (like not writing your story in the 2nd person) are there for good reason — you ignore them at your own peril.
In the end, the stories you write might come from you, but they aren’t just for you. Whether you are J.K. Rowling or just starting out, realize that the life you are breathing into your characters extends much farther than your keyboard and monitor. These characters become important and real to the people who support your work. Show yourself worthy of the trust your readers place in you by considering the impact of your creative actions on them — and you will be justly rewarded with their loyalty.
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