Hey, guys. As the title suggests, I want to talk about two very prominent themes in Shadows Rise; death and grief. If you’ve been reading along and keeping up with SR, you’ll know some specifics. If you haven’t, I’m not giving away any spoilers by saying this. The premise itself gives those themes away. When you have a group of people seeking revenge on a clan of assassins… The death and grief part is very much implied.
I previously wrote a post listing all the stupid reasons I’ve killed characters in the past and if you’ve been following me long enough you might have been around for the April Fools where I faked a favorite character’s death in our RP just to mess with readers, but… The people reading at the time were personal friends; I knew them, and the other participants of the RP were aware of what I was doing. I mean, Wifey co-wrote that death post with me. It was an evil prank, but I’d always been the one who gets pranked on April Fools and that year I had something I could use for revenge. They forgave me eventually. >.>
With that damning behavior out in the open, let me preface this by saying that killing off a character to, so to speak, take something away from my readers isn’t something I would normally do. And it’s not something I can condone. As a reader I hate plot armor with a fury. I genuinely think that if in the back of my mind I can tell myself “Pft, there’s no way they’ll kill the main character” every time the going gets rough in a story, and I know it’s true, it takes something away from the experience. On the other hand if I start feeling there’s no point getting attached to any characters because the author doesn’t think twice about dropping them like flies… Yeah, that’s a much bigger problem.
Should You Kill Main Characters?
That’s up to you.
Death is a part of life, but a lot of people don’t enjoy it in their stories. They want the certainty of a happy ending, they want the plot armor. They want an escape from the reality that being a hero a lot of the time means you don’t get to go home. And honestly? That’s okay. It’s perfectly okay to always want your main characters to come around in the end.
When people turn to fiction they usually want either escape or catharsis. In the simplest terms I can put it, they either want to immerse themselves in something fantastical where good an evil are somewhat tangible concepts and the hero eventually comes out on top in the end… Or they want to experience intense negative emotions from a safe distance as a form of release.
The third option, and of course my personal favorite, is yes to both. That’s why I mainly stick to fantasy but I also seek out darker and bleaker themes in the stories I read. I want my fiction to be fictional and I don’t want it to make me think about everything that’s wrong with the world and in my life (I do that plenty on my own, thanks. >.>), but I also don’t want to be coddled and told that everything is going to be okay.
My point is, it depends on what kind of experience you want to create and what you enjoy writing, because readers come in all forms. No matter what you choose, there’s going to be a group of people out there who are, inf fact, seeking out that experience.
Why Should You Kill a Character?
Even if we’re talking secondary characters, deaths should be handled with respect. Even if you’re killing off a villain. Even if it’s the most hated character you’ve ever conceived, one way or another, the death needs to have impact and it has to mean something.
There is a random scene I wrote in response to a prompt; and I’m not going to show it because it involved a SR character that hasn’t been introduced yet, but in it I used the line ‘grief isn’t caused by the death of a person, it’s caused by the death of a life that could have been’. If the life of a character has no meaning, no impact, in the world you created, then never mind their death.
Likewise, killing should bear some weight on your main characters. Especially if they’ve never killed before, but if they have… Then it must still affect them somehow.
There are two works of fiction that I like to mention when I talk about inspirations for Shadows Rise and I’ve gotten some weirded out reactions for mentioning them together, but those would be The Walking Dead (the comics, but the show is good too), and Avatar: The Last Airbender. I really want to write about Avatar one day. Maybe I’ll rewatch the whole show and write my thoughts episode by episode one day, but the part that’s relevant to this post is how The Walking Dead handles death and killing and how Avatar handles the toll of a hero’s journey.
With TWD, while anyone can die at any time and death is literally all around at all times; especially as the arcs go on, the biggest theme is how this environment affects the living. All the different ways it affects the living. How the characters begin to see their own humanity. The weight of forming bonds with people who may not be there in a day or a week, and the notion that the longer you have them with you the worst it’ll be when it finally happens. The reason this is brilliant, in my opinion, is that you don’t need to make a big deal out of every death, you just need to do a good job of getting across that every death, no matter how small, reinforces this notion in the surviving characters’ minds.
In Avatar it was the idea that Aang might need to kill the Fire Lord. And this show was considerably lighthearted a lot of the time. It had an entire episode dedicated to the ‘antagonist crew’ going on a beach vacation and it was hilarious, but when it got real, it did a fantastic job of it. And as the show progresses and Aang starts mastering the elements like he’d set out to do, he starts to realize that finishing this might require taking a life. And Aang is very much a pacifist, he’s not okay with it at all. AT ALL. But he knows Fire Lord Ozai is a psycho with delusions of grandeur and when it comes down to it, he won’t be talked down. Here the conflict becomes sacrificing an aspect of yourself to basically save the world. It’s a situation where winning becomes an act of self-sacrifice more so than dying, and a way a villain’s death can hold a lot of meaning to the hero without undermining how cruel and ruthless they are.
But Aang doesn’t actually kill him in the end anyway, so… Oh, well. Happy ending! 😛
How Should You Handle Death Scenes?
Ah. That’s tricky.
If you’re familiar with my blog you’ll know that the one advice I’ve ever openly given and will stand by 100% until the day I die is “know your characters”. If you’re talking main characters; how would they be likely to die? What are they willing to sacrifice for? How afraid are they to die? Do they know when to quit? Are they likely to fall pray to their own arrogance? The options are vast. And I can’t tell you which path to take, because I don’t know your characters.
What I can tell you is that it’s very important to know the tone you want to take and what emotion you want to invoke.
People like to talk about manipulating readers’ emotions like it’s this horrible unethical thing, but no. You want to manipulate your readers’emotions. It’s a writer’s job to make their audience feel. What you don’t want to do is have your readers sit there and feel like you’re making a desperate appeal for them to feel the way you want.
“Death is tragic, right? This is sad, right? BE SAD NOW.”
Yes, death is tragic, BUT; like it or not, death is ordinary. People die every day. People are dying while you read this. The tragedy you want to focus on is not the fact death happens, but on the loss of a life. And you won’t know the best way for that life to end unless you understand what that life represented.
I can think of at least two instances where characters died a pointless or preventable death in our RP series. And even though those can be deeply dissatisfying, they can also be the most fitting end for a particular character. In the end, that’s a judgment that you’ll have to make. And it’s a decision your readers may not agree with. Because dissatisfaction is the intent behind these kinds of deaths.
To try and put it in simple terms, if the feeling you want to invoke is that sometimes you just don’t get to do everything you want before you die. Or that sometimes the horrible path someone takes in life could have been prevented under different circumstances, or if they made different choices, those are harsh realities to face. And some people aren’t going to handle them very well. Be prepared for that. Don’t shy away from where your story is going because of it, just prepare yourself for that.
Denial is a very common grief response, and whether people admit it or not, that’s what happens when a reader turns on a writer for not ‘giving them’ a happy ending. This response is the same as when a friend dies and you think that no God should have allowed this to happen. In a much smaller scale; of course, but it’s that same gut-feeling of anger and betrayal. If you’ve suffered with the loss of a fictional character before in your life, then you know that’s true.
It’s easy to be mad at the writer. Because in a reader’s mind, a writer has the power to snap their fingers and give them a happier ending. As a writer, you have to come to terms with the fact that’s not exactly true. Sometimes even if you want a happy ending… That’s not realistically what your characters would choose for themselves.
Maybe I’ve been rambling about it too much, so let me summarize this in the simplest terms I can manage: If you look back on a character’s life and feel their death makes sense; regardless of how you or your readers may feel about it, then you’ve given them a fitting end. Maybe not fair, probably not satisfying, but fitting with the person they are and the path they chose.
Say you killed off a main character, or someone really close to one of your main characters, now what?
Grief is a complicated process. And I say this from experience, no only as a writer but from personal experience as well. Different people express grief in different ways and the same person may even handle two different deaths in very particular ways, depending on their relationship with the deceased. And once again, it comes down to “know your characters”. I can’t tell you how to make your characters handle grief, but… I can give an example. A somewhat personal example, not only from Shadows Rise, but from my own experience.
I lost my grandpa about a month or so before I started working on Shadows Rise. That was a couple of years ago, before we even decided we wanted SR to be a web serial, I was just writing it out as a side thing; a rough draft of it. Focusing on SR at that time was my way to handle all the personal stuff. I wrote other things specifically to vent my emotions, but SR was a focal point for me during that whole thing.
Last year; after a considerable time had passed, I found myself stuck on a particular chapter where Sebastian finally starts to break down over his sister’s death. That entire chapter revolves around how sooner or later you’re going to feel that loss. It can happen right away, it can take months, or it can take years. Sometimes you think you’re done and then something happens that just brings it all back again. That chapter was extremely difficult for me to write because, even though considerable time had passed, it pulled me into a state of grief.
Now, when it comes to grief, we all know the five stages. It’s brought up exhaustively everywhere. Denial, anger, barganing, depression and acceptance.
If you’ve never lost someone; and I hope you haven’t, it’s easy to base yourself on this and I would say that understanding how your character handles each of these stages is a very solid approach to grief. Because from personal experience, I can tell you… They’re all there at one point or another. What I’ve found is that you can definitely go through these stages at any given order, multiple times, and even after the point you’ve accepted, it doesn’t mean you won’t go back to feeling anger or depression or even denial over the fact you’re still going through something when you feel you shouldn’t.
Each person is a person, and that’s true of fictional people as well. Really reflect, first and foremost, on what emotions your character might be going through, how they would handle those emotions internally, and lastly how they would express those emotions on a day-to-day basis. If your character isn’t one to wear their heart on their sleeve, in what ways would they manifest grief?
Death As a Motivator
How do you inject meaning on a death that has taken place before your story even begin? How do you make your readers feel for a character that they never get to meet? Well, the short answer is, you do that, of course, through the surviving characters.
This is something I consider dangerous territory. What you should avoid, at all costs, is to turn what should be strong character motivation into a sob story or a plea for sympathy. Let draw examples from two works of fiction that I am extremely passionate about for very different reasons.
Inigo Montoya’s tale of revenge in The Princess Bride is a great example of character motivation done right. Here you have the story of a boy whose grief and anger over his father’s murder shaped the man he later becomes. You hear Inigo’s story and you can see the outcome right in front of you.
Now let’s look at My Immortal. Yes, really.
Hermione was kidnapped when she was born. Her real parents are vampires and one of them is a witch but Voldemort killed her mother and her father committed suicide because he was depressed about it. She still has nightmares about it and she is very haunted and depressed.
Now, I know that’s an extreme example right there, but I think the beauty of My Immortal is that it’s such a clear and blunt illustration of what not to do, that I can almost give it merit for that. It’s a great educational tool if you can muster the courage to sit through it. So the above paragraph is basically saying ‘sad things happened’ with no impact whatsoever. Hermione was kidnapped as a baby, so did she even know her witch-vampire parents? Did learning about their deaths make her haunted and depressed? Or was it the knowledge that the only parents she knew and loved were in reality criminals who stole her for unexplained reasons? The takeaway from this, if you know My Immortal at all, is that, of course, Hermione is ‘goff now’, but nothing we’re told about it holds any emotional weight, so… Who the fuck cares?
Back to Inigo Montoya… His purpose in life is to be able to look into the eyes of the man responsible for his father’s death and tell him “You killed my father. Prepare to die”. You don’t need to know who Domingo Montoya was to understand that his life meant that much to his son. How meaningful would that really be if that same story was told with:
Inigo’s dad was killed by a six-fingered man when he was a child. He has nightmares about it every night and he’s so haunted and depressed, you guys!
I’m sorry about that. I feel dirty now.
But you get the point, right? A death like this will only affect your audience as much as it affects your character. You can establish a tragic beginning for your character, but if their actions, their decisions, who they are, aren’t impacted by that backstory; if your readers can’t see it when they look at who that character is now, then it holds no meaning whatsoever. It’s just a thing that happened.
Anyway, it’s really late and I have a doctors appointment early in the morning. So I’m gonna leave you guys with that thought. Hopefully someone finds this useful, or at least entertaining, I don’t know.