How to kill a fictional character without losing your audience

I’d been noticing an uptick of hits on my Game of Thrones related posts in the past few days. And a lot of people googled for things like “is game of thrones depressing” (yes) and “does game of thrones have gore” (you bet).

Now I know the reason behind this trend, because it looks like the other shoe – or rather the blade – has dropped on Games of Thrones. For in the episode broadcast this Sunday, Ned Stark, played by Sean Bean, met his fate. Coincidentally, Sean Bean was also stabbed in real life the very same weekend. The things you come across while looking for spoilers for something completely different.

Warning: There will be some spoilers for Game of Thrones (show and book) as well as for Battlestar Galactica (the original mainly) and Spooks in the following, so proceed with caution.

A lot of viewers are not happy to the point that HBO had to defend the turn of events and the producers had to explain why it had to happen that way. Short answer to those questions: Because it’s in the book, duh.

I get easily bothered by fictional deaths, provided I’m invested in the characters. There is a TV show I really loved that I can’t stand anymore, because they killed off my favourite character (and no, it’s not who and what you think). I can’t even rewatch the episodes that were good nor can I stand to see the actor in question in other things. I’m still pissed off about this and will probably be for a long time to come, because in a single swoop I lost a favourite character, a favourite TV show and a very talented actor I would have watched reading the phone book. So yeah, fictional deaths – particularly when senseless or unexpected – can bother me a lot.

Here is another example: I have probably shed more tears for Zac in the original Battlestar Galactica than his father, brother and sister ever shed on screen. And somewhere in a dusty notebook, there is an early bit of fanfiction about Zac surviving, but getting captured by the Cylons. He subsequently escapes and goes in search of the Galactica and his family and his whole people basically. Oh yeah, and there’s a fellow prisoner, a pretty girl, who helps him. You get the idea.

The death of Zac in the original Battlestar Galactica was a huge shocker, precisely because you didn’t expect it to happen. Zac was played by Rick Springfield, who was a frakking* pop star. He was so famous that even I, who pretended not to be interested in pop music at all, had heard of him. Rick Springfield was a lot more famous than most of the other people on screen, save Lorne Greene perhaps (and to my teen self, he was just “some old guy from some show my mother used to like”). Surely he was going to be one of the stars of the show. And then, ten minutes in – BAM – he’s dead, just like that. And another five minutes or so later, almost the whole human race is killed off as well. Really, how could you not be hooked by a show which kills off not just a pop star but also the whole human race in the first fifteen minutes?

The remake really wasted a huge opportunity (the first of many) by having Zac die off-screen several years before the action. People die in the first few minutes of the remake, but none of them have the same impact, because none of them were teen pop stars you were sure would survive.

Ned Stark’s demise never really came close to that shocker for me. To begin with, introducing a character who is strongly implied to be one of the leads and then unceremoniously killing him or her off is not really as shocking anymore as it was back in 1978 (or around 1987, when I first watched the original Battlestar Galactica). It is by now a common and time-honoured technique. I call it the “red shirt lead”.

A particularly fine example can be found in the first season of the British spy show Spooks. In the second episode, a junior analyst, played by an actress who had been on Eastenders or some such show and was well known in Britain at the time, is shoved face first into a deep-fryer and killed. This scene is a shocker, because ugh, deep-fried to death seems like a very ugly way to go. It also nicely sets the scene for Spooks, which has never been shy about killing off likable lead characters. None of the Spooks deaths have ever bothered me – I know better than getting attached to the characters. Ditto for Joss Whedon’s work. I know he likes to kill characters at random, so I’ll never get attached to any characters of his again.

As for the doomed Ned Stark, I knew what was going to happen to him from the beginning. I read A Game of Thrones upon the recommendation of some pals, back when three of the books were already out. And since those pals couldn’t stop talking about Ned Stark’s execution and assured me, I’d love it, I knew he was going to die from the moment. Hence, I never got attached to him. Killing off the apparent hero and throwing a young child from a tower also serves a similar purpose as that unfortunate deep-fryer victim on Spooks. It sends the very clear message that this is the kind of story where anything can happen and anyone, really anyone can die.

In the end, I barely made it through the first book and never read the subsequent installments, because A Song of Ice and Fire just didn’t work for me. Nonetheless, George R.R. Martin plays fair and lets you know fairly early on in the series** what to expect. And if you’re not willing to go on that particular journey, you can bail out during the first book/season.

Meanwhile, the death of my favourite character in the TV show that shall not be named bothered me so much, because the show had previously implied that guest and supporting characters could die, but that the main cast was safe, even to the point of bringing characters who were pretty obviously dead back. If the character in question had died earlier, I would have been sad, but not as upset. But the show first laid down rules (yes, we will kill guest characters, but the main cast will survive) only to break them. And subsequently broke them again and again (and probably a few more times, though I stopped looking for spoilers at one point).

So if you’re going to kill off a likable character, even a main character, at least be fair and give your reader/viewer an advance warning that death is a constant threat in your story universe.

*Come on, you knew I couldn’t resist doing that.

**Though “fairly” is relative, considering the size of one volume.

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