Science fiction and fantasy tell some big stories. We’ve got monsters, super/magic powers, hero/villain battles, and every kind of weapon you can shake a Mjolnir at. In the midst of all this chaos, blood’s going to be spilled and death is going to happen. Sometimes, that means that characters we love and connect to are going to get pretty well murdered.
Two creators are notorious for their character kill-offs. I’m talking about two creative power-houses right now, Joss Whedon and George R.R. Martin. Of the writers out their today, both of these men are known for sparking controversy by once in a while just axing a beloved character or three along the way. But before the next chest-stabbing happens or someone else loses their head, I want to delve into why it is that character deaths make fans rage.
(Warning: There shall be spoilers for a certain Marvel super hero movie! And Game of Thrones! And Firefly and Buffy, you know. Be warned!)
George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series and the subsequent Game of Thrones series on HBO is full of death — gory, creative, horrifying death. In a world populated by so many characters, it was obvious that a few were going to get the ax in thousands of pages of text. But how many people really saw the coming death of Ned Stark on the chopping block? Ned Stark’s death was a signal that in the game of thrones, nothing and no one is safe from the consequences of their actions. To me, that provided a realistic action/reaction basis for the world. There would not be magical last minute saves for our favorites and fate (or the writer) could be cruel to characters who made stupid or wreckless choices. Yet I’ve heard people criticize Martin’s murder of characters as detrimental to their enjoyment of the series. The reasoning behind this reaction is that it is painful to a reader to connect with a character in a story, begin to root for them, and then watch them die in ways that they consider random, arbitrary, or unnecessary.
The same is often said about the second creator I mentioned, Joss Whedon. Joss right now, as far as many fans are concerned, can do no wrong. He’s been the creator of a handful of shows that are touchstones in the scifi/fantasy genre like Buffy, Firefly, and Dr. Horrible. He’s created great films in the past, such as Serenity and the recent horror meta-homage, Cabin in the Woods. Oh yes, and then there’s a little movie that came out lately. You may have heard about it. It’s called The Avengers. He tackled the biggest team-up movie one could imagine, juggled a franchise with several already established major movie commodities, pacified the fears of comic book fans and created a comic book movie that will help set the bar for all those to come. In other words, the man has a licence to just be awesome pretty much anywhere he wants in Hollywood right now.
Still, when you watch a Joss Whedon production, you should expect death. Not just the body count that goes into any kind of comic book or horror film. Oh no, Joss Whedon has perfected a talent for getting you to care about a character, building them up as someone real, complex and relatable and then slaughtering them mercilessly before your eyes. Where Whedon goes in a different direction from Martin, however, is that the deaths in Whedon’s work often are sudden and jarring, intent on inciting an immediate visceral response. And at this point they are nigh legion. Buffy the Vampire Slayer saw Willow’s girlfriend Tara take a bullet through the chest. The film Serenity gave us the spike through the chest death of Wash that sent audience members shouting at the screen. And then there’s the most recent addition to the list with the stabbing of the hardest working SHIELD agent there was, Agent Phil Coulson, in The Avengers. Each of these events, while obviously not the only deaths in Whedon’s work, sparked gut-checking visceral reactions from fans to be argued and debated over for ages thereafter.
Fans seem to have mixed reactions about the utilization of character death in Whedon and Martin’s works. Criticism has been leveled at both creators that they are too free with the ax, killing characters just to get that visceral reaction without much consideration. But consideration for what, I wonder? After witnessing some heated debates about the death of Agent Coulson, I began to question why there is such a backlash at the creators for bringing death into people’s fantasy. We’re okay with violence, with battle and war, with the possibility of ending the world in our fiction. We watch movies where whole cities full of nameless, faceless people get flattened or exploded or baked without batting an eyelash or shedding a tear. But introduce a little sudden death of main characters and fans get super-emotional and even angry at the writer.
Often times, fantasy stories will include far too many ’easy rescues’ for our heroes to keep the plot moving forward. This removes the threat level which provides a story with its tension. By killing characters that readers have considered vital, creators like Martin and Whedon remind us that the threat is real in their stories, that even heroes can die and that goodness doesn’t always triumph over all. It makes readers think about issues like death and about how unpredictable life can be. That can make people nervous. It also makes for better, more realistic fantasy storytelling.
What often surprises me instead is the accusatory fashion with which fans will point a finger at a creator and blame them for the character’s death, as if it were Whedon that stabbed Coulson or Wash, or Martin’s hand that held the decapitation sword himself. It is a testament to their power as creators that they’ve done their job to make fans feel so deeply. But is it a case of a creator doing their job too well? There are scifi and fantasy fans I know who will avoid both Martin and Whedon’s work because they expect and hate the often-sudden character massacres.
I believe the discomfort comes down to the base fear of death and uncertainty that people face every day. Death is a subject that makes people uncomfortable. It doesn’t surprise me then that people would have such emotional reactions to fictional character death. They come to fiction to be taken away from the concerns of their everyday life. When confronted with the sudden death of a beloved character, viewers and readers are jarred into dealing with the uncertainty of life in their fiction and that can be unnerving. Look at reactions to the first murder in Psycho, or the death of Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter as examples outside of Martin and Whedon if you will, as they’re not the only writers who use the tactic to drive the emotional point home.
For those still watching Game of Thrones after NedGate 2011, I wonder how many will be shocked and shaken by what’s to come if they haven’t read the books. I wonder at the reaction people will have to Agent Coulson’s death in The Avengers — will they see it as a vital part of the story or as a throw-away meant to cause an emotional reaction? Either way, I find the unpredictable nature of these creators ups the ante in the story in a way that is very fictionally satisfying. Is that going to be everyone’s response? No, certainly not.
Still, I think that we can find it in our hearts not to point a finger at the writer quite so hard over the death of our beloved characters. After all, the old addage goes ’kill your darlings’. We just might not have expected quite so many sucking chest wounds in the process.
Shoshana Kessock is a comics fan, photographer, game developer, LARPer and all around geek girl. She’s the creator of Phoenix Outlaw Productions and ReImaginedReality.com