Much was made recently of the Red Wedding episode of the Game of Thrones teevee show. If you haven’t seen it yet, minor spoiler: EVERYONE DIES. Actually,I just spoiled the whole series for you. George RR Martin kill characters like I kill cupcakes, which is to say frequently and messily. At first, this made me fall in love with the series- Right about the time Ned Stark dies, after essentially being set up to be the hero, only, nope he’s dead and there’s no comic-booky bringing him back.
Only, it turned into a reverse-Redshirt syndrome. Instead of knowing who was going to bite it because they were the only non-important person on the away team, you know they’re going to die because they have two lines in the book and if you get lines in GoT, you die. Points for creativity, but after a while you can’t get attached to characters because they aren’t sticking around.
Martin explained in Entertainment Weekly:
I like there to be considerable suspense. I killed Ned in the first book and it shocked a lot of people. I killed Ned because everybody thinks he’s the hero and that, sure, he’s going to get into trouble, but then he’ll somehow get out of it. The next predictable thing is to think his eldest son is going to rise up and avenge his father. And everybody is going to expect that.
Which is the problem with a lot of fiction- it’s a Nuke-the-Fridge scenario, where no matter what, the hero wins, gets the girl, etc. This takes away from the enjoyment for the same reason that scene from that horrid Indiana Jones movies doesn’t work- there is no possible way the hero dies. And once you’ve established that, well, what’s the point of reading?
Which has me thinking- what’s the way around it? Redshirt deaths are meaningless, except to establish this thing can kill you. GoT deaths (and lives) are much more impactful (to be fair, Martin does an excellent job of weighing what each death means in the world overall). Is there a happy middle ground?
One of the things Martin executes (no pun intended) rather well is the way he introduces and overlaps the various characters, so by the time nearly everyone you met at the begging of the series has met their gruesome fates, you kind of don’t notice, because you’re invested in all these new people (until they die horribly). Where it fails a bit is you have something like three people you need to have alive and they keep not dying, so you tip your hand a bit.
I really enjoyed Wash dying in Serenity because it was kind of pointless- the movie was over. And then, bam dead Wash. It was kind of pointless, but it speaks to Martin’s point up there- it wasn’t predictable, and hey, sometimes life sucks (or in this case, ends). It emphasizes that the universe and the issues the characters have been dealing with are larger than the characters themselves- they are given weight by the sacrifices of Wash and Book. It also draws attention to the sacrifices of the others- Zoe loses her husband, Mal lost his faith, which put him at odds with Book, but in a way that makes Mal’s sacrifice that much deeper, as someone who paid the price of loyalty throughout the series. The deaths of two characters made the lives of the others deeper.
I’m curious to hear your thoughts on character death- feel free to chime in!