Why death Needs to Matter in Fiction

What does a world look like without any weight?  What happens when death ceases to matter? Most would say life loses some of its meaning, and those people would be right because in stories where life is on the line death should matter. So why is it we treat it so flippantly when we write?

A Scottish friend of mine recently described X-Files as saying “Well, it’s an American show so it runs on way too long, but its good”. It was sort of jarring because I realized that’s how a lot of American shows look to the rest of the world. Our stories go on for years and years until the audience tapers off out of boredom. Part of why death often stops mattering in fiction is because we just keep bringing characters back, so the show never has to end. But there gets to be a point where no matter how much you love a show your ability to actually invest in it or recommend it to others suffers.

That doesn’t mean a story  with meaningless death can’t entertain you or offer a good time. Look, I enjoy comics and Supernatural. So trust me when I say a lack of death doesn’t necessarily ruin anything. However when a show, movie series, or books begin to constantly subvert death the tension lessens. Unfortunately this is automatic because death is the ultimate loss and many of the stories within these fictional worlds hold up that standard. These stories agree that dying is the biggest way to lose and the worst. Your ability to be a free agent is gone, and unless death is framed as being free of your body it is the end of who you(or a loved one) are as a human. Death is the universal period. For those reasons it appears in virtually every story ever told.  So why do so many stories undermine death? This isn’t me talking smack about happily ever afters. This isn’t me being a morbid person. What happens when death is off the table? What happens when you flip page after page of characters droning on about wanting to live and how much courage it will take to fight to stay alive only for none of the central characters to ever die.  The risk lessens. The tension is the only thing to die.

supernatural

I stopped watching Supernatural regularly because it got boring and I couldn’t care if Sam or Dean died because they were always dying. Several seasons ago they had an entire Groundhog Day episode where Dean was forced by the Grim Reaper to learn that death was unavoidable by endless loops of Sam dying. It is a brilliant episode rendered utterly pointless and undermined by later seasons. You see The Reaper is offended after watching the brothers circumvent death time and again. While they may see it as a sign of their strength and love for each other The Reaper sees it as the brothers as believing the rule simply don’t apply to them. It is unnatural, manipulative, selfish, and against the cycle of things to constantly manipulate the rules of death. Everyone has a time to die and you can’t always save everyone. Lesson learned…or maybe not.
Years later it seems the rules really don’t apply to them. At its core the show is about family thematically, but it’s a monster of the week. The problem with most monsters of the week is that you end up repeating yourself. The trouble with Supernatural is they repeat death to almost comic levels. At this point the show is entertaining, but how can I not roll my eyes as another season builds up to “sacrifice” and “Death” that is ultimately undone  an episode later? How can I feel tension when this has been rinsed, washed, and repeated every single season? How can the writers keep doing this then think the audience would legitimately feel any weight with the brother’s lives?

Now, I’ll say that there is a good thing. Audiences know what they’re getting. Low stress, high entertainment value, and good looking men come to their screens every week. But there gets to be a point where people fall away. Nothing is at risk. Nothing is under threat. Nothing means anything. You’ve seen this all before. Different season same seasonings, and it didn’t matter before so it won’t now.

Supernatural, long standing comic books, games, movies, and novels of all kinds seem to have devalued death. Now each media has its reasons as do the authors. Bottom line is you want people to come back and they’ll probably come back to a character they love. Once again you sit down, open to the page, and know what you’re going to get. But when a writer takes away the real risk, the universal risk, and then keeps saying “Oh this is bad” then you’ll find yourself not believing them. That’s fine for some light reading, but it sucks when you love something and then one day realize it isn’t thrilling you. One day you’re reading intently, but then you feel yourself sliding back. Your favorite character lives, your heart should have skipped in your chest, but no. Why? That’s not normal for you. Well, after some long thought you realize you didn’t believe that character would be killed. Mindless entertainment can’t last forever. And a writer will never be remembered for it.

image-w1280Do you know why Beaches stuck with people? Besides great acting, great writing, universal themes of love and friendship….there came death. Do you know why Steal Magnolias dug into people’s chests and made them cry? There. Came. Death. They were uplifting, but they used death to show the value and the strength of their characters. Everything ends, and it showed the beauty and pain of living. Death made life worth living, fuller and richer and messier, and that’s very human. Without death there is very little life. Without death there is a facsimile of it, a grotesque mirror…a dull mirror with no shine left.

No story has to be chalk full of death and misery to have tension or weight. I am not saying that and never would. But if death is on the line then death should be on the line. If your readers have seen you write Benny nearing death several times across three books and nothing has been lost, no one close to Benny has died, and nothing is really present as the greatest risk and cost then they won’t believe you the eighth time.Maybe that is the time you finally decide to kill Benny, but that won’t necessarily validate all the times you didn’t and Benny walked away unscathed. Death has to have meaning. People we like have to die at some point. IF the only people dying are bad guys then the story isn’t full of real conflict for 2017, and unless you craft exceptionally well you won’t be able to ignore most of the flak. If you keep devaluing death eventually, consciously or unconsciously, people will notice and begin to not see the tension as real whether they stay in the audience or not.

There are ways of getting around devaluing death. A lot of horror posits that the aftermath of death is the problem. The Hellraiser series is a favorite of mine and it isn’t so much the death that is the weight, but the dying. Death is horrid, but it is what becomes of you in the hands of the cenobites, in the hands of someone the cenobites have corrupted, and so fourth that is the ultimate cost we want our protagonist to avoid. And the way this is done is so beautifully simple. The cenobites have grown numb and no longer can differentiate between pleasure or pain. They’re sort of a play on the notion of demons. They aren’t malicious or evil. They invoke and experience sensations. They are not innocents, but they might as well be with their myopic view. The demons don’t tempt you in order to trick you so they can do you wrong. They tell you things without detail, promise sensations you’ve never experienced and simply do not see the big deal about pain. It is sensation. Sensation is good. With creatures like that death is triviality, and if they learn to keep you alive, which they have, they will give you endless sensations of unimaginable horrors. Death isn’t the enemy here. Life after “death,”being stopped from death, and being hunted are the costs. We get that from those monsters.

firefly20cast20364700While some people may not forgive Joss Whedon for killing off characters the notion that he engages in senseless deaths is a wrong one. Sorry to break it to ya’ll but Buffy, Firefly, and Dollhouse wouldn’t give you the same feeling if death wasn’t always on the table. He and his writing teams designed characters who felt like they were part of the main crew or who outright were. Maybe you didn’t know the story or see the adventure, but you knew from the dialogue that the characters saw them as an honorary part of the team. By snuffing those characters out those writers seeded doubt. They taught their audience how to fear and not to trust that everything would be wrapped up. And 90% of the central teams still made it to the finish line. Realistically you could look and say “Oh one character will tap out and it’ll be done” but did the audience do that? No. Whedon’s shows were crafted strategically to make us believe every person was fair game despite the obvious fact that they were not. They weren’t senseless deaths for the writing of it. They weren’t bad writing. If you believe that then you believe wrong. Death can just happen and sometimes it doesn’t need to be built up because life is pain and suffering with real consequences. That is what makes the good parts of life so important.

Truthfully all death is senseless and it can strike at any time. Our media often likes to forget that, but by showing you these characters who get killed you learn not to trust. That makes you hurt and ache and invest. Some of you may turn off the screen, but that’s your loss because:

Death Matters.

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