This blog entry . . . ANYONE CAN DIE!
Okay, probably not. Because that’s not something I do. It’s not something that interests me. I’ve got a pretty light touch when it comes to killing characters. I’ll admit that. I’ll usually kill or destroy or otherwise get rid of the bad guy, but it’s not my thing to introduce a colorful supporting cast and then pick them off to establish the credibility of the threat they face. It’s probably yet another thing that keeps me from being taken as seriously as I’d sometimes like. Nothing like a little blood on the page to remind everyone that you’re not screwing around.
I think this is probably because of my love of comic books. Comic book superheroes are some of my earliest influences. But I have a bad habit of liking the strange and obscure characters. The very same characters that tend to die whenever a writer needs extra drama. It puts me in a strange position. If you’re favorite hero is Batman, Superman, or Spider-Man, you can rest assured that they aren’t going anywhere. They might die for a gimmick, but no one with any sense believes they’ll stay dead. Same with all the popular villains. But if you, like me, enjoy Quasar, Diamond Lil, or Arnold Wesker, you are stuck walking a very difficult line.
Quasar, for example, is a character who was never popular but nonetheless had his own comic book series that lasted 60 issues before fading into complete obscurity. I had the whole series and really loved it. It also had the unfortunate side effect of making me a fan of several other even more obscure characters in his supporting cast. Seriously, does anyone else out there like Makkari the Eternal? If so, love to hear from you.
But then Quasar disappeared into comic book obscurity. He did eventually reappear. Only to be killed by an evil alien.
Story of my life, a comic book fan of the little guy, the obscure, the forgotten.
I think Quasar is back because death is rarely permanent in comic books if someone likes you, so clearly someone out there has a soft spot for Quasar. Good luck, buddy. I’m rooting for you.
Danger is often an important aspect of adventure fiction, but it shouldn’t be the only aspect. Or even the most important one. The conflict from adventure fiction should rarely be about the protagonists’ continued survival, but on their ability to achieve their goals. Danger is only one of the obstacles that can get in their way, and it is, more often than not, an artificial one.
I call it The Invulnerable Protagonist Rule. The rule says that if making your hero explicitly invulnerable to physical harm removes all the tension from your story, then you’re doing something wrong.
Almost all adventure protagonists are invulnerable. Not explicitly. But they’re invulnerable just the same. Batman is not going to get shot and die, no matter how many times he leaps from the shadows into a mob of thugs. Indiana Jones is not going to be killed, execution style, by the Nazis. And no matter how many times James Bond is facing incredible odds, he won’t die. This is necessary for most adventure fiction. Without it, most protagonists would probably perish in very short order.
We might thrill to the adventures of action heroes, but for the most part, we know they are in no real danger because who wants to watch an superhero movie where the heroes spend all their time in traction? Or watch Conan the barbarian get eaten by a giant spider?
The tension in adventure is found in whether our heroes can triumph. Can Superman save Earth from an alien invasion? Will Indiana Jones keep the Nazis from finding that magic superweapon? Can James Bond keep Goldfinger from nuking Fort Knox? Being invulnerable helps an action hero, but they usually have to work at it still. Just because no one is going to shoot Batman in the back, it doesn’t mean he automatically wins.
I’m often surprised that this source of tension is lost among both writers and readers. It’s one of the arguments most often used for why someone prefers Batman to Superman, for instance. As if a Batman story is going to end with Bats getting mortally wounded. The only difference between Batman and Superman is that Batman conveniently jumps out of the way of bullets while Superman doesn’t usually have to. At the end of the day, they are both functionally invulnerable as their stories demand.
Yet there seems to be no greater joys for most writers than to get to write the story where ANYONE CAN DIE! And the audience tends to dig it too. And that’s their choice.
But I always get a little angry with it. I don’t like stories where a character I’ve invested in is killed. I don’t like them even as imaginary stories, as alternate universe adventures. I find it annoying, manipulative. Sometimes, it even seems a little abusive of the artist / audience relationship to trick the audience into caring for a character only to kill them off to supply drama.
I’m not suggesting that it shouldn’t be done. I’m all for a diversity of stories, and if some stories make life cheap and the fans like it, well, good for them. But in my fiction, if I’m going to invest in a character (or ask my readers to invest), I’m not going to yank the rug out from under their feet just because I can. Frankly, I’ve lost too many important people in my life and in my fiction already.
This one goes out to you, Thunderstrike.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,