This post is not a review of the movie ‘Faces of death’. To a writer, death is a tool, and today I’m going to take a look at the way death is used in writing. How can you use it? how should you not use it?
Let’s have a look at the various faces of death in writing.
Death to resolve
When the protagonist in a book (or movie) fights some terrible criminal, the resolution is often that this bad guy is killed. A good example is the Emperor in the Return of the Jedi. He has plunged the galaxy into darkness, and oppresses numerous planets with the threat of total obliteration by his Death Star. At the end of Return of the Jedi, he is killed and the galaxy is freed from tyranny. This type of death provides catharsis for the reader, a sense of triumph.
Note that killing the bad guy is just one way of resolving a plot, and not necessarily the best way. Death is very extreme, and it can easily become the cheap way out. There are many other ways of dealing with a villain: imprisonment, disempowerment, or even turning them back to good – note what happened to Darth Vader in the Return of the Jedi. It all comes down to proper setup. Depending on the foreshadowing you do, the death of the villain becomes either unnecessary or inevitable.
Death for drama
Sometimes it’s not the villain that dies, but the protagonist. Tragic stories can be very powerful or they can fail miserably.
Spoiler warning, I’m going to spoil the ending of the movie the Butterfly Effect now. In this movie the hero can travel back in time to previous points in his life and change his past, leading to altering his life in the future. However, every time he does so, things get worse, and he suffers brain hemorrhages from the added memories. In the original movie ending, he goes back to his early childhood and drives away his romantic interest at their first meeting as children, sacrificing his love so everybody can be happy. This ending did not work very well. However, the director’s cut, which I picked up in a bargain bin a year or so later, turned out to be awesome. Why? Because in the director’s cut ending, the protagonist kills himself before he is born and that makes everything right, which fit far better with all the setup in the story. It changed a romantic drama to a tragedy.
The death of the protagonist can be a very powerful resolution of a story, but as I said above, it all comes down to foreshadowing. The movie ending of the Butterfly Effect suffers because the movie was set up to be a tragedy, and they changed the ending at the last moment to a romantic drama without redoing the rest of the setup.
Death for suspense
Almost all of us are afraid of dying. More so, we also fear our loved ones dying. So, what better way to drive up the suspense than placing a character under threat of dying?
The threat of dying brings suspense. You can achieve this threat by making the circumstances such that the character might die. You could throw your character out of an airplane without a parachute, for instance. Or have a sniper targeting them in the sights of their rifle. Or, more subtly, you can start foreshadowing the character’s death, ranging from making references about how their luck might run out, to them finding dead birds in front of their house.
Another way to threaten the character, is to have others around them die. This can be very effective in ensemble casts. By killing one character, you will establish that all characters are under real threat, and that you’re not pulling any punches, and have the added conflict of characters dealing differently with death close to them.
Be careful not to add flat characters just to off them: this is a famous cliché from the original Star Trek, and has been given the term ‘red shirt’.
Death without meaning
Sometimes, writers or movie makers decide to kill off characters in a meaningless way. This bothers me to no end. It was the main gripe I had with Raymond E. Feist’s Serpentwar Saga: characters randomly die. I remember one character just walking in a field in a military column when he suddenly dies, accidentally shot by the loaded crossbow on the back of the guy in front of him.
It’s realistic, of course, but it’s not for stories. A death of a character is a powerful, emotional event, and in a story that should mean that it is an important event in the story. Killing somebody without any set up, because it’s ‘realistic’ is not a good idea, in my opinion.
Death has many faces in stories. In the fantasy and science fiction genres, it’s often not even as final as in real life. To a writer, death is a tool. A way for us to create suspense or a resolution in our stories.