Tuesday, June 4, 2013

When bad things happen to good characters

There was a thing that happened on a television show this weekend. No, I'm not going into specific detail (though, really, how you can cry spoilers when the book that the show is based on was published 13 years ago is a thing I do not undertand, and also, Romeo and Juliet die at the end), but yes, I am talking about Game of Thrones, and yes, people died in a violent and perhaps unexpected and unfair manner.

The reactions to this event, both those of the "OMFG what just happened?! GRRM is a murderous rat bastard!!1!" and the "what does this mean about the craft of fiction" were very interesting to me, especially as someone who bounced off the second book in the series twice and has never seen the show, and so had no emotional involvement in any of the specific characters affected.

To understand why bad things happen in fiction, we first have to understand the idea of stakes. No, not the vampire-slaying kind. But the idea that if there is no possibility that something can go wrong, it won't matter when something goes right. Now, the something that can go wrong doesn't need to be violent death. It can be the threat of being grounded for sneaking out of the house, or a souffle that falls at a key dinner, or the circumstances that thwart true love. But at some point, there needs to be the very real chance that your characters don't get what they want. They need to have something at risk, and it needs to be something that matters.

I point this out because often when a writer talks about doing something bad to her characters (sometimes killing them), the response is, well why did you do it, then? You're the writer, just don't write the scene. Even Martin, in this interview (don't click the link if you don't want to be spoiled on the specifics of a scene that was published 13 years ago) has said it was the hardest scene he ever had to write, that he loved those characters too. But if the characters we love are immune from potential consequences, then those story-lines have no (or lesser) stakes. 

There is also the idea of whether or not the consequences are earned in the world of the story - are the stakes appropriate? Does the bad thing that happened to the character resonate? The death of the character, the frustration of their desires, has to matter. It has to serve the story.

In the same interview linked in the above paragraph, Martin talks about how part of the reason he does kill off the characters he does, is to subvert the expectations of the reader. Stories often follow patterns - we know, for example, if what we're reading is a romance, or a revenge tragedy. So he kills characters to break that pattern. Which, I actually think is an earned consequence. Subverting the expectation of the reader, telling them that they are not in the kind of story that they think they are can be a very powerful storytelling technique.

What I wonder is, is what happens when the subversions become their own expectations? I mean, the snark is out there - GRRM can't use twitter because he's killed all 140 characters. Joss Whedon will find the character you love best, and kill them  for sport. So it's not that readers (or viewers) know the story pattern, and are surprised when it is subverted, but that they know a particular writer's story pattern, and the subversion travels full circle to become the expected.

Again in the above-linked interview, Martin says that when a character is killed, the reader should grieve, should care. And we should - the writer should grieve her character, the reader grieve the loss. And this is where we are back to stakes. If we never worry that something bad can happen to a character, we will never worry on their behalf, no matter what kind of physical or emotional jeopardy it seems they are in. We stop caring, because we know everything will be fine. The flip side of that is, of course, that if bad things happen all the time, and to all the characters, we become numb, we become immune to the grief and the loss, because we never risked getting attached in the first place.


  1. Yeah I killed off the female love interest in book 2 and my beta readers were pissed off!. (Most of them were women). and So I had to write the third book just to somehow bring her back to life in a quasi believable method.

    Lesson learned? Have your beta readers read each chapter as it comes, don't wait until the end of the book!

  2. I understand GRRM's point -- in fact, I was just reading an article this morning about avoiding plot predictability -- but at the same time I think you have to be careful not to let the storytelling (mechanics) overshadow the story (narrative). I haven't read GoT or watched the show, so I can't speak to how well GRRM handles that, but the reactions I've seen on Twitter suggest the latest deaths came completely out of the blue. I know Whedon can be bad about it. Case in point, Wash's death in Serenity. As you said, I now find myself holding back from emotionally investing in any character in anything Whedon does because I know anyone could die at any moment -- and often for no real reason.

    That's the key: there has to be a reason, and the story has to have led to it.

    The British version of Being Human handles this kind of thing beautifully. I've cried every time a major character has died in it, but the story has always built up to it in a way that I know it could happen. In fact, that heightens the story's tension and keeps me watching. By the time the character dies (or leaves), as much as my heart breaks, I know there's no other way things could go. The deaths are earned. As a result, I still invest emotionally in the rest of the characters in the show, even though I know any of them could die or leave next.

    It's a tough balance to achieve. I'm still trying to figure it out myself. But I think a good rule of thumb, or at least the one I live by in writing, is never kill a character just for the sake of killing a character. If the story doesn't call for it, don't do it. But if the events of the story mean it has to happen, then let the character go.

  3. Ever since TV series were invented, we've been fed this line that heroines/heroes CAN'T die (what would happen to the ratings for one thing) because they have to be in next week's episode. They're called 'anchor characters' for a reason.

    What GoT, both the books and the tv show, did is turn that expectation on it's head. Which I think is a good thing. Good for writers, good for readers, and good for the breadth that series characters now have the opportunity to flow in. – this is based on the premise that it’s not overkill (unintended pun) which has the effect Andi mentioned in the first paragraph of her comment.

    My response to reading the first book in the series was to wait until GRRM finished the whole story arc and then read from go to whoa. (however many books there end up being, and I'll kill him if he dies before he finishes writing them!)

  4. Interesting and well-written post -- especially since I'd been wondering what all the GoT fuss was about. (I started reading GoT right before Hurricane Katrina and was too depressed to continue, and I've never felt up to giving it another shot.)

    I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on resurrecting characters. Does it undercut the original objective (establishing consequences)?

    1. Well, when I think about resurrecting characters, the first thing that comes to mind is Buffy. Who was not only a main character, but the title character, and died at the end of Season 5. She was resurrected at the beginning of Season 6. For me, that's an example of how to do things right - the show demonstrated that there were consequences for her resurrection, both for her, and for those involved with the spell that made it happen. And she was never immortal. So yes, I think it can be done, and done well.