Deathless (writing)

The dilemma all continuing universes / ongoing series must face is how to keep the drama when death is no longer an option. This is a dilemma that comic book superheroes have faced for decades, and which is even now, complicating things as they continue their dominance on the big screen. The math here is simple. Killing characters is one of the easiest ways to raise the stakes, to make the bad guy look bad, to make the good guys seem in trouble. It signals that things are getting serious and that there’s no going back.

Except there usually is.

And here’s the problem with any sort of shared continuity and ongoing property. Many writers are not equipped to deal with a deathless universe. Most of the audience has been conditioned to think of death as a real threat, and why shouldn’t they? In most genres, killing a character is a permanent thing. You can’t kill them off casually, and if you do kill them off, it’s almost impossible to bring them back plausibly. That’s not how real life works.

But fantasy, in all its myriad forms, isn’t bound by the laws or reality AND superhero fiction is such an Anything Goes genre that bringing characters back from the dead is neither difficult nor even implausible. That doesn’t mean it should be done frequently. Or, if it is done frequently, that death should be viewed by anyone as more than a slap on the wrist.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is already struggling with this problem. In Avengers, Agent Coulson dies, serving as the dramatic plot point that forces the Avengers to work together to save the world. It’s powerful, dramatic. Coulson was the only character to appear thus far in all the Marvel Cinematic movies. He’s the connecting character, likable, and meant to be a sort of everyday Joe in the middle of this madness. His death should mean something, but he’s also a popular character and someone it’s easy to spinoff into his own show. These two conflicting elements mean a choice has to be made. Kill him and leave behind a lucrative franchise OR don’t kill him and do that spinoff.

Unsurprisingly, they went with the third option. Kill him AND still use him for that spinoff. It’s a cheat, but in a universe of gods and aliens, high technology and magic hammers, it’s not the worst sin.

The worst sin is repeating the same hollow death scene again and again.

Nick Fury “dies” in The Winter Soldier, and is immediately back before the end credits roll. Loki “dies” in The Dark World, but, nope, not really. Groot “dies” in Guardians of the Galaxy, although a passing familiarity with the character means knowing death is hardly permanent for the big guy. Still, most people aren’t familiar with Groot. Most people assume a death is meant to have some degree of permanence. Heck, even Spock was polite enough to stay dead until the start of next Trek movie, and the entire plot was about bringing him back. If someone doesn’t “die” for drama during Age of Ultron, it’ll be a genuine surprise.

This is nothing new. As a long time superhero fan, I’m used to such empty drama. Death in a superhero universe, no matter how heroic or tragic, is rarely permanent, and watching a character die isn’t particularly exciting or interesting, with the exception of obscure characters (who I happen to generally like) who have a stronger tendency to stay dead. This is why I don’t actually read many superhero comics at this point, especially from Marvel or DC. The drama is artificial and it feels like it. It’s hard to be invested in a character’s death when there’s no reason to believe it will take. It’s empty.

Granted, this isn’t unique to comics. Indiana Jones isn’t going to die in his movie. Remmington Steele wasn’t going to perish during any of his adventures. Scooby Doo is not going to be electrocuted by the 10,000 Volt Ghost. But each of these characters are written with this in mind. Yes, Indiana Jones’s life is threatened as he sword fights with Nazis or outwits deadly traps, but the conflict is not whether Jones will die but the exciting manner of his escape. The danger is there as an obstacle to be overcome, and we all know that. Just as we know that it’s unlikely the last Batman story is going to be one where he’s shot in the back by a nameless goon.

Treating death as anything more than that in an ongoing universe (especially an extremely fantastic one) is a waste of time. The audience will buy it for a while, but all but the most foolish will begin to see the pattern. It’s a running joke in superhero comics that death is a revolving door, and it’s well on it’s way to becoming the same thing in the superhero movies. Whether through reboot, retcon, or just plain “A Wizard Did It” writing, it’s hard to view death as dramatic when it’s so obviously impermanent.

That’s why writing any kind of ongoing adventure series requires a different kind of plotting. It isn’t about killing characters, but about creating memorable obstacles. We know Indiana Jones isn’t going to be crushed by that boulder rolling after him. It’s his daring escape that holds our attention, not his imminent demise. Older superhero comics definitely understood this. All those weird classic covers where Superman has a lion head or where Batman is wearing a weird costume, are designed with this in mind. Yes, they’re weird, but they work because they don’t lie to the reader about characters dying. They intrigue, and they do so by admitting from the get go that neither Superman or Batman are going to die.

In my own stories, I sometimes get pinged for my reluctance to kill characters I like (or even characters I think have potential to tell more stories), but I don’t have any plans to change that. I like having options. I like creating characters that are worth living with, not just designed to die for drama. And I write mostly standalone novels.

It can be difficult for a writer to not rely on their old standbys. It can be hard for the audience to grasp. A Game of Thrones is considered mature because it’s willing to kill its characters, but at least it kills them. They don’t show up a week later, unscathed. It might seem like empty drama to me, but it follows its own rules. If death is meant to be dramatic, then it must have some element of permanence, and in a shared universe, permanence is all but impossible. Inevitably, some writer will come along who likes Character X and brings them back, no matter how permanent their death might have been intended.

So my advice (which I doubt anyone important will see, much less listen to) is understand this. Death is mostly toothless in an ongoing, shared universe, and there’s nothing wrong with accepting that so long as you play fair. Instead of attempting to shock the audience by killing a beloved character, just give the protagonists interesting obstacles to face. Have the specter of failure be their greatest foe, not the Grim Reaper. Otherwise, you end up with hollow stories and an audience losing investment with each false death they have to sit through.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,



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One Comment

  1. Posted March 25, 2015 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    I can think of a few examples where a writer goes for the maiming of a character, rather than the death, because they know they can’t kill off the character but there needs to be some kind of sacrifice. But even then it’s pretty much the same. How big of a sacrifice is that hand that gets cut off when the character, let’s call him Luke, gets a robo hand that is just as good as the old hand?

    In comics (the best examples for ongoing universes) I can’t even blame the creators. You don’t kill a cash cow and a cultural icon that has been going strong for decades. And readers can be fickle. You can kill Bruce Wayne without killing Batman, but what if the readers don’t accept the new man under the cowl? However, the consequence should be, as you say, not to use the not-really-death.

    In my own writing, I have a rule: dead is dead. Unless it would be an integral part of the story itself to bring a character back from the dead, characters should stay dead, even in a fantastical universe that has magic in it. Bringing someone back for a feel-good moment at the end craps on the glorious tragedy of the death itself.

    And yet, there is one thing that’s even worse than “Look, I’m back!”: It was all just a dream.

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