The Problem With Fictional Deaths

27 Jul

Via cnbc.com

*WARNING: Spoilers for various books like Mockingjay, Forever, the Iron King, and Death Note*

I’ve always had a certain disbelief whenever I read a characters death in a book. Almost half of the time, it was just a close call and the character is suddenly back, arriving right at the height of a big moment. It adds suspense, but books (and movies) have done it so much that it’s ruined my ability to take a death seriously. I’m almost always convinced it was a trick or misunderstanding. In the book Forever (from the Mercy Falls series), I went a full chapter believing with full certainty that Cole St. Clair was not dead. I finally admitted that it could be possible when they went looking for his body; kind of a strange reaction since them not being able to find his body should reinforce the belief that he’s not dead. But I should have held on to my belief; Cole was revealed to be alive. I responded with relief AND excitement; perhaps a weird reaction for someone who’d known it all along.

The same happened in The Iron King; the Winter Prince Ash sacrificed himself for his love, Meghan. Except no one sees him die, since he tells Meghan to run while he fights back their enemies. Sure enough, Ash ends up being a prisoner to the enemy but fully alive. You can see why it’s hard to take any death seriously anymore. Which is a big problem, since now it hurts so much more when it isn’t a ploy. Instead of feeling the pain and grieving with the main character immediately after, we fill ourselves with disbelief and float through the next few chapters waiting to see when they will reveal themselves to be fine. When we slowly realize they’re actually dead, we have to cope with it during a random part of the story, after the other characters have already moved on.

A prime example of this is in Mockingjay, when Prim dies. That was more believable but still, there’s always a hope that she wasn’t caught in the bomb blast. We had to slowly realize that she was gone. And death note? I was COMPLETELY convinced that L was alive, he was just pulling a move on Light. I mean L, the greatest detective in the world, killed just like that? I had to ask my friend “Wait, he’s not really dead, right?” before I could even begin to believe it.

This just goes to show that “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” is right; authors have used this manipulative writing technique too many times for me.

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2 Responses to “The Problem With Fictional Deaths”

  1. Thomas July 27, 2011 at 6:55 PM #

    Sorry best friend, but I don’t agree with this post. I mean, you state that authors have used the tactic of “the boy who cried wolf” too many times right after you supply examples of when characters have actually died. Characters die and they don’t die, that’s just like life or any other events that occur in a novel.

    In fact, I don’t think “the boy who cried wolf” analogy works in this case because it’s not like the same author is utilizing the plot device repeatedly. (SPOILERS FOR ANYONE WHO HASN’T READ THE WOLVES OF MERCY FALLS TRILOGY): Olivia dies, Beck dies, Jack dies. You said that you felt “relief and excitement” when you learned Cole survived, if you had felt purely manipulated you would (or should) have felt anger that Stiefvater had the nerve to do that to you.

    Have you read the book On Writing by Stephen King? I think the following idea was presented in his novel, and if not, it’s common knowledge in writing: great characters never die. That’s why Cole survived, Prince Ash survived, etc. Killing off a great character hurts a book and does not benefit it as much as keeping them alive.

    To address your main thesis in this post, one rarely accepts death immediately. When one of my best friends passed away I was in a state of shock for weeks and maybe months, not really believing he was dead. I feel like that’s how it is with fictional characters too, if they’re written well enough – the suspense that is created as you wonder if they’re actually dead isn’t a ‘ploy’, more like part of the plot that pushes the story forward.

    “…we fill ourselves with disbelief and float through the next few chapters waiting to see when they will reveal themselves to be fine. When we slowly realize they’re actually dead, we have to cope with it during a random part of the story, after the other characters have already moved on.”

    I think that may be more of your inward skepticism rather than a fault of the author. I wouldn’t fake a character’s death intentionally while thinking “ha, they’re going to think that he’s dead and he actually will be dead! shocker!” That’s taking the reverse psychology a little too far, if you know what I mean…

    Anyway, great thoughtful post and you bring up a good point. Congrats on almost 2000 views! (:

    • lightningflash2 July 27, 2011 at 8:49 PM #

      It’s alright, you can disagree 🙂
      I’m not saying killing off characters is bad, nor do I disagree with the fact that “characters die and they don’t die”, I’m just saying that sometimes it feels like a cheap gimmick to add more suspense by killing off a character and then revealing they never really died. I’m not implying all authors utilize this incorrectly, it’s just that once it’s been done so many times (not by the same author, but all across the board) then it takes away the great aspect of it. You’re right; killing off a great character would ruin the book, which is why there’s always a plot twist that brings them back. But it makes the serious deaths a little harder to believe once we’ve been desensitized by the “falsies”; especially when an author DOES kill off a very main character (like L, although you don’t read Death Note). And I can agree with your point that fake death or not, it will always leave you in shock; I’ll have to think that over 🙂
      and thanks! I hope you have fun on your floating boat filled with unlimited food ^_^

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