On Death In Fiction

Riffing on the two sides of the debate in the wake of Infinity War – either all those deaths don’t matter because we know they’re coming back or it matters because the people in universe don’t know that. What do writers owe their readers?

This post was inspired by events that take place in Avengers: Infinity War. If you’ve not seen it yet and want to remain unspoiled, be warned, I’ll be talking about major stuff that happens.

Spoilers

With that said . . .

Holy shit, that movie killed a lot of people. I’m not even talking about anonymous nobodies, set dressing to be collateral damage for the big final battle. I’m talking beloved characters, some major, deaths that could be universe shattering, even if we, as savvy modern media consumers do better.

The deaths basically come in bunches. Loki and Heimdahl meet their end at the very beginning, while Gomorra is sacrificed about midway. But the big shit hits the fan when bad guy Thanos gets all the Infinity Stones and snaps his fat fingers, disappearing half the beings in the universe. Among those who disappear into dust (like vampires on Buffy . . ., but they float up to hebbin, rather than down to the ground) are Black Panther and Spider Man. Serious shit.

Or is it? It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that there’s no way Marvel is going to let all those characters stay dead. The MCU is an impressive feat of storytelling, but it’s first and foremost a money-making property. Black Panther and Spider Man already have other movies in the pipeline – you think they’re going to dump those for the sake of the story? Fat chance.

Which has led to an interesting discussion on line about the end of the movie. On one side are the people who say these deaths (at least the dusty ones, maybe the others) don’t really mean anything because we, the audience know they aren’t permanent. On the other are people who insist that they do have meaning because the other characters in the MCU don’t know these characters will come back and so it’s a big deal for them. Who’s right?

Maybe neither, at least completely. Some of it depends on what the creator is trying to do. If it’s just shock the audience, it’s a pretty hollow means to do so, but that’s not the only thing you accomplish when you kill a character.

Go back to the aforementioned Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy dies at the end of the fifth season, sacrificing herself to save the world (again). It’s no shock that the next season of the show was not a Buffy free zone – she came back from the dead in the first two episodes. That was to be expected. But the show worked through that in very interesting ways. Most importantly, Buffy’s friends thought by bringing her back they pulled her from hell, when in fact she was in heaven (or at least at peace). In other words, it mattered for the rest of the season (and the show, really) that Buffy had died and then gotten better. It wasn’t a simple reset button.

To pull a somewhat vague, non-spoilerly, example from my own writing, I have a book where a major character dies at the end. That death resonates through the next book, motivating what other characters do. I didn’t kill that person off just for a “gasp” moment or to make sure readers know that nobody in that world is safe.

On the other hand, the recently completed season of Agents of Shield ended with an emotional death that, it turns out, really wasn’t, except the people in the universe completely knew it (even if viewers, myself included, were scratching their heads for a bit). That’s just cheap manipulation and is a hollow exercise.

Then there’s always the Deadpool take – announce you’re going to die in the opening credits, show said death twice, have a prolonged death scene later in the film, then wink it away post-credits. But would you expect anything less from that fucker?

Which path will the next Avengers movie take? Too soon to tell, of course (except, I think it’s safe to say, not the Deadpool avenue), but one hopes it’s closer to the Buffy example.

The bottom line, as a writer, is that death, like anything else when it comes to plot, is a tool. As with any tool, it can be used well or poorly. But given the emotional heft that death can have, folks should think long and hard about deploying it as a simple plot point. As with all things – think it out first.

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