How to kill a character

Authors have the power. They are Gods. But we all know that nobody will like your story if you make up things that don’t make sense.

Let’s talk killing. Inexplicable or Illogical Character Deaths (ICD if you will) – I hate them. I don’t mind the death of a beloved character, even if it is sad and horrible. Sometimes it makes sense. Think only of Harry Potter. (Trying not to spoil too much here.) There are simple facts that are true, whether in the real or fictional world. War takes its toll, there will be casualties. Additionally people know that Rowling is not afraid to kill, so reading on gets more exciting. (Quite contrary to Twilight, where we know nobody’s going to die and it becomes boring.)

Now in series such as Charmed, Smallville, Star Trek or Xena, people die alot. Of course they also get resurrected a lot so the show doesn’t run out of characters. But that means killing someone convincingly is very, very tough. Don’t kill people too often or it gets ridiculous, save them with the most realistic methods possible, and make sure they carry away some post-traumatic stress.

In Star Trek, I believe, the killing has been done convincingly enough, since they accept the hypothesis that they cannot save everyone, and when they manage it, it’s usually a miracle. (I hated how they killed Data, Tasha or Jadzia, but at least there was really nothing the characters could have done.) There are forces in the universe, such as Q or other aliens, that reverse death, but it’s not like the characters ever depend on that. In quite a few scenarios, though, the writers simply used a reset button of some sort, and although overused, always kind of works for me.

In Smallville, it’s the other way around. They have miracles every frickin time someone dies, and that becomes unbelievable after a while. Make it a close call, yes, but do not kill people and then dramatically proclaim them dead, only to revive them by the most unlikely means possible. It’s not tension, it’s not drama, it’s stupid. At least what this does is keep the way clear for a real character death. Because you can’t alyways expect Chloe to love everybody who dies so much that she cries and revives them, can you?

In Charmed, death is tricky. The Book of Shadows is the ultimate failsafe. If Leo can’t heal you, the Elders won’t reconsider, and no potion works, then “there’s got to be something in the book” (as they always say) to revive loved ones. So how then do you kill them? Take Andy Trudeau, Prue’s romantic interest in season 1. He dies in the last episode, and it’s a draw between bad luck, bad timing and, well, fate. Some things are “meant to happen” in the Charmed universe. And if the writers/producers say Andy’s got to die protecting the sisters, so be it. His death is part self-fulfilling prophecy, part plot device, and his ghostly goodbye to Prue is so etheral that we dare not question the wisdom of this event.

When it comes to Prue herself, well, her death is quite convincing. Mostly because it happens in such an anti-climatic way: they are simply too late to save her. If I remember correctly, her death was left hanging because it wasn’t clear whether Shannen Doherty would stay Charmed. This means of course that her death could not be exploited dramatically, but only in its aftereffects. Considering this limitation, it was okay. Chance, I like. Nobody can fight it, not magic or super powers. In Charmed, this might be called fate, but I call it an acceptable plot device.

Now to one of the most annoying deaths of all time: Xena. Not only does she die a few times. In probably the best episode and plotline of the series, she even gets crucified and really dies. I know the battle between heaven and hell were not to everyone’s liking. But the spine breaking! The death! Man, was that dramatic. One of the reasons why it worked so well was that the episode was logical and comprehensible.

But then compare this to her final death in the last episode. What a whimsical excuse for a plot device. Xena not only travels to a different country (can’t she at least die defending her own home?) to a past we knew absolutely nothing about, to help people that she obviously loves more than Gabrielle but never bothered to tell her about (this is sheer blasphemy) and then dies in the worst way possible. She does not fall in a heroic battle, but is felled by arrows. She dies for something she believes is her fault, which it is clearly not, and has to stay dead to avenge souls that, frankly, have brought their deaths upon themselves. Seriously, who attacks an innocent woman in a town made of straw huts with burning torches on a windy night? Sure, blame it all on Xena. I don’t even know why they wrote it like this. If they had used a few illogical plot devices to kill her in a heroic fashion, fine. But don’t create stupid plotlines to kill a heroine like this.

Similarly, the death of Joxer is a nasty piece of work. We loved him. He was funny. And we really felt for him regarding his unrequited love. I like the fact that he marries and has children. It’s also okay that he sacrifices himself for Gabrielle. But why, oh why, does Xena’s daughter, destined to turn good, have to kill him? They’ve already used the my-kid-killed-someone-you-loved plot! (And yes, Xena & Gabrielle damn well loved Joxer, okay?) And how can they forgive Eve so easily? It took an entire musical to get over the children-storyline! And the death itself is hardly rewarding! Xena had the situation under control, there was no reason for Joxer to die. No, dear writers, that’s not “tragic irony” – that’s just mean. Can’t Joxer have at least the real death of a hero and not only a pretend one?

So you see, authors, you’re not Gods. Just because you write it so, doesn’t make us instantly love it. We need an explanation! We need a little bit of chance, unhappy circumstances, evil intent, overpowering odds. Stuff that happens in real life that we can relate to. Of course we like it when someone gets saved magically. But that cannot be the answer for everything – and don’t worry: You’ll get to exploit the ensuing trauma and mourning for at least 5 episodes in a row.

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