May 3, 2016

Gone But Not Forgotten

by Gary Fearon, Creative Director, Southern Writers Magazine

(Warning: may contain spoilers)

You gotta love this title.
A good protagonist is like a good friend.  Over time we get attached to them as if they were members of the family.  So when writers decide to kill them off, a little piece of us dies with them.

The Grim Reaper is no stranger to series like House of Cards, The 100, Game of Thrones and, like the title implies, The Walking Dead.  Cop shows and mysteries feature death in virtually every episode, but when the deceased is a fan favorite, it's a shocking turn of events.

In a recent conversation with a writer friend, I was mourning the loss of a primary character on one of the few dramas I follow, The Blacklist. After my rant, they in turn bemoaned the impending doom soon to befall a key character on a drama they follow just as avidly.  All of this is on the heels of the recent blockbuster Batman vs Superman, in which a beloved character meets their demise.

Meanwhile, here I am, still getting over Edith Bunker dying on an episode of Archie Bunker's Place in 1980.

I also never figured out why it was necessary to kill off Dan Conner in the final 1997 episode of Rosanne, when it was already going off the air.  But then again, Rosanne was often funny that way. Or not funny that way.

Getting rid of a main character on a TV series is sometimes the result of a pregnancy, a contract dispute, or some other irreconcilable difference.  Fortunately, writers of book series don't get painted into such corners with actors, so literary deaths have a bit more intentionality to them.  It seems the more dystopian the setting, the more likely it is that one or more of the good guys won't make it to the last installment.

No matter the medium, extinguishing a popular character is a bold move.  More than one author has faced backlash from angry readers afterwards.  J.K. Rowling alone has made postmortem apologies all but an annual tradition. As far back as 1893, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle felt the brunt of a perturbed public when he killed off Sherlock Holmes. The outcry was so loud that he soon resurrected the storied sleuth.

If a main character must die, it should further the plot and not be merely for shock value (or publicity). If it provides fodder for subsequent episodes that deal with finding the person's killer, for example, at least they did not die in vain.  The bereaved audience will find solace and satisfaction as justice is sought and served.

At the very least, the impact a character death has on the reading or viewing public must be given appropriate consideration.  They need time to grieve, so let them attend the funeral, hear the recollections of the deceased's friends and family, and basically say goodbye in their own way.

Since there are innumerable ways to bury a protagonist, the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.  If you should find yourself with a good reason to try it in your novel, proceed with caution, but be encouraged by those who've gone before you.  Obviously some writers are making a killing doing it.

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