Yesterday I had the pleasure and the honor of hosting a workshop at the SCIFI-LX FESTIVAL in Lisbon with writer Pedro Cipriano about HOW TO KILL YOUR CHARACTERS. The theme of the festival is The Apocalypse and the workshop was very interesting to me and hopefully to the diverse audience present as well. Let me give you the main topics of my presentation.
Death is an obvious topic of fiction since the beginning. But an interesting point is who you kill. In the Greek tragedies of old, if I recall, much of the focus went into the sacrificial death of the hero at the end. Sacrifice was a virtue and the sacrifice of the hero for a higher purpose or fighting a much stronger force (the gods, for instance), was the main goal. In much of literature for a long time, I believe, Death was ‘given’ to important characters for important reasons. In ROMEO AND JULIET, for instance, Death is not only an escape but a sign of rebellion. This kind of Significant Death has been present a lot of fiction for a long time.
We have seen, however, in some fiction throughout the last few decades the proliferation of other kinds of deaths. Let me characterize one type as the ‘Red Shirt’ deaths. If you’re a trekkie, you know what I mean. In the original Star Trek series, the crew members with red shirts were taken to dangerous places to be the first ones (usually the only ones) to get killed. We didn’t know their names and didn’t want to know. The feeling to us was very similar to the death of a fly. No emotional involvement at all. This would also happen to dozens of Indians in Errol Flynn’s westerns or Vietnamese and Russian soldiers in the Rambo sequels, or ‘bad guys’ in many other works of fiction. The first movie that I felt, as I watched it in the theatres, broke the mold in the eighties was John McTiernan’s DIE HARD. Until then we weren’t used to give a face or give a damn about the ‘bad guys’. They didn’t have any characteristics, any differentiation. In DIE HARD, we finally have a common man, John McLane, fighting a hard fight against each of the terrorists he kills. We even have the brilliant comic relief of the oriental terrorist stealing a chocolate bar before a fight. What a lovely character-development comic detail. No ‘one-shot-one-kill’ phenomenon, no multiple deaths from a single burst, no dumb ‘red shirts’.
Another formula that was particularly irritating for a while was the ‘Sacrificial Lamb’ formula. I was shocked yesterday at the workshop when I put up a photo of Maverick and Goose and no-one seemed to know who they were. Am I really that old?? Well, then I asked: who will be killed in the movie? And the audience quickly came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t be the character portrayed by Tom Cruise, it must be ‘the other one’. Goose is an example of a Sacrificial Lamb: a character you build up over the first two acts just to kill him/her for effect just before the end of the Second Act. Obi-wan Kenobi is another Sacrificial Lamb. And Boromir as well (even though he gets killed in the final act of the first LotR movie).
It was irritating for many to feel the same death formulas being used over and over again for a long time. Me included. Until I read A GAME OF THRONES (Spoiler alert). Suddenly I felt George R.R. Martin had just taken the rug from under my feet. What do you mean, Ned Stark died?? It took me some time and another hundred pages or so to accept the inevitable. With that single act of defiance, Martin had just thrown the rule book into the fire. From then on The Song of Ice and Fire (SOIF) characters were really in danger. Their lives and their deaths had really become unpredictable. And that was awesome!
The same happens in THE WALKING DEAD. Each character of the series or the graphic novels is naturally and fatally in danger. We never know exactly who will perish next. And that makes for a lot of its success. See, for instance, the end of Season 6 of TWD. We see 5 or 6 of our favorite characters being taken prisoners by the evil Negan. Negan, played brilliantly by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, has decided to kill one of our beloved characters, characters we’ve been following for years. He then proceeds to kill one of the characters in a cruel gruesome way. And then the season ends. We never see who got killed. The cliffhanger was maintained until the beginning of Season 7. For months we were wondering who had gotten killed and we suffered for it. Because these days we are not certain anymore of who is safe and who is not. The Build-up of characters is made over a long time and in subtle ways so the Pay-off is stronger and harder (on Build-up and Pay-off concepts read this post).
There is, however, in my view, a great difference between the deaths in SOIF and the deaths in TWD. In Martin’s epic, we always feel a progression towards a certain point in the future. We feel the story, the plot points, each death, will lead us towards an end. We don’t have that in TWD. There’s a cynical background in the post-apocalyptical tale that in my view makes it less satisfying. We don’t feel the deaths will lead us towards something. They are just another notch on the writer’s belt. There’s no end in sight. And that’s why I progressively grew disenchanted with that story.
I spoke of two other phenomena at the workshop. First, the Theory of Horror. I asked the audience what would they rather suffer: An arm cut off or the nails taken off with a plier? A bullet in the shoulder or a needle in the eye? Actually, for most people, the nails taken off or the needle in the eye are scarier than the other more dangerous injuries. Why? Because they are more relatable. It’s easier to imagine the pain of a needle in the eye than the strange pain of a bullet in the shoulder. Unless you’ve been through it, of course. So gore stuff like decapitations or deadly explosions is not the most impactful for an audience. Take that into consideration.
I also spoke of Deus Ex Machina endings. Even though you can argue that once or twice in classic movies and books they’ve been done right, the fact is Deus Ex Machina endings are lazy solutions by writers who don’t know how to end a story and would rather drop a nuclear bomb or a deadly meteorite and kill everybody. Acts of Nature are not bad. In James Clavell’s TAI PAN, for instance, the final encounter between the protagonist and antagonist happens in the middle of a powerful hurricane. And that’s interesting. But acts of Nature that purely resolve the conflict by themselves are the babies of lazy writers and should be discouraged.
I finished my presentation with Spiderman. «What does Spiderman say?» I asked the audience. And they replied: «With great power comes great responsibility.» They are right. We, the writers, have great power over the lives of our characters. That means we have also a great responsibility. The responsibility of killing them in a meaningful way. Forget about ‘Red Shirts’, forget about ‘Sacrificial Lambs’. Kill them right: give them a good life and a good death.