Question of the Week: Character Deaths

Fans fear Joss Whedon and George R.R. Martin not because they invented the idea of killing beloved characters but because they make it so painful. Some viewers and readers love the added suspense of never knowing who is “safe,” while a few can’t bear the tension and turn away. I suspect this division is similar to the one between people who love roller coasters and those who’d never get near one.

In superhero comics, of course, death is seldom permanent. Nobody believes it when you kill Spider-Man or Captain America or Superman. Certainly not since Phoenix. The exceptions (like Mar-Vell) stand out because they are so rare.

I am one of those who enjoys the danger that a favorite character might die, not because I want the death because I thrive on suspense. My wife, while she loves Game of Thrones, can hardly bear to watch after an event like Season One’s famous execution and, of course, the infamous Red Wedding. We joke that the perfect movies for her are those in which everyone’s a good person and nobody gets hurt. That’s not actually true (she loves The Godfather, where everyone’s a bad person and everyone gets hurt), but it makes us laugh at the same time that it points out we enjoy different things from fiction.

How do you react to the death of beloved characters? Do you prefer the sense that anyone could die? Or do you want some assurance that by the end the “good guys” will prevail and get medals?

5 thoughts on “Question of the Week: Character Deaths

  1. For the most part, I want the protagonists to live. I read romance as well as SF/fantasy and the guaranteed Happy Ever After is part of the appeal of that genre. I read very little horror because the chance of the protag making it out alive is at best 50/50.

    That said, I think it’s all about the implicit promise to the reader. Game of Thrones starts out with an execution–the reader knew starting out this was going to be a very gritty fantasy. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld makes a very different promise to the reader–to make them laugh.

  2. I hate reading an epic battle when you know what the outcome is. It takes the suppense away. I want to be on the edge of my seat cheering for the hero. If the hero dies I am sad. However it gives me and the author the chance to explore more characters. Where I can be on my seat again cheering the hero on.

  3. WARNING: spoilers for King of Chaos and other V.J/R books:

    Jaggare makes a comment somewhere in that book that Radovan “isn’t really dead”… because he’s thought he was dead before, but it never seems to stick.

    Radovan does seem to have moved into superhero territory 🙂

    But don’t use this as a suggestion that you should really kill him….!

  4. I just need death to have a purpose, or at least be reasonable for the setting. I think Game of Thrones has some horrible, gruesome deaths (usually accompanied by heartbreaking torture scenes) but it has a purpose: the world of GoT is a largely horrible, horrible place. While I don’t like it, it’s still alright to read. When it feels like a death occurs simply for the sake of adding a body count, or to side characters that the author clearly intended to be canon fodder, that’s when it feels cliched and a little … ridiculous? My immersion just lessens a little, because it’s like the shoe I was waiting for to drop finally falls, irking me while also cheapening any tension I would have felt for the main character’s situation.

Care to comment?