Thursday, October 30, 2008

The death of the protagonist




There are a lot of things I’ll try in fantasy, but there’s one plot twist which I would hesitate to touch with a ten-foot sword. That’s the protagonist dying.

I’m prepared for this in plays. Some of my favorite Shakespeare plays are the tragedies, where the protagonist’s personality and the Fates themselves conspire to bring about the sad inevitability. It works in literary fiction as well. But in more mainstream novels, or speculative fiction? It’s much more difficult to pull off there.

Part of the problem is that readers invest their time and emotional energy in a person or that person’s struggle, so they hope that person will win and/or be happy in the end. When that person dies or is murdered, it’s sad at best and a shock at worst. There are three books I've read which ended with the killing of the main character and which I don’t ever want to pick up again – Bernard Taylor’s Charmed Life (depressing), Ben Bova’s Mercury (very depressing) and Ayn Rand’s We the Living (so depressing I wanted to toss the book on the floor and jump up and down on it).

So when does this plot twist work?

1. The main character has accomplished his purpose.

This is usually a peaceful, closure-type ending, e.g. Watership Down. If the character hasn’t accomplished what he set out to do, best not to toss him a deathbed consolation prize. If he dreamed of reaching the summit of Mount Everest, and if he’s lying on the South Col in the final stages of hypothermia, having him experience an epiphany that yes, he’s won just by getting that far is probably not going to work.

2. The main character redeems himself by dying.

My favorite example of this is Bridge on the River Kwai. The main character’s death under such circumstances can be very cathartic, especially if there’s no other way for him to defeat the antagonist(s) without sacrificing his life.

3. The story doesn’t end with the main character’s death.

The “It ain’t over till it’s over” ending, superlatively done in A Song of Ice and Fire. Someone else picks up the banner and the story goes on. Probably the only way a fantasy series can continue after the protagonist falls on his sword - or anyone else’s, for that matter.

4. The character’s death doesn’t go dismissed or unnoticed.

One of the reasons Mercury didn’t work for me. The main character, dying of thirst on the titular planet, dictates his last words to the love of his life, who had married another man. She listens to the recording after his body is found, looks at her son (by the other man) and thinks, “Life goes on.” Not much of an epitaph for the protagonist.

The other characters don’t need to spend the rest of their lives in mourning, but if they never even know about the death(s), the story can come off as very bleak and nihilistic, rather than sadly ironic.

If that sounds cynical on my part, it might be--but I get these vibes from what I believe the show portrayed through its scornful treatment of the characters. Why should we care about them if no one--except possibly those destined to die--learns anything?



5. The character isn’t resurrected – or isn’t entirely normal again.

There’s one fantasy series which I stopped reading because a main character who died was brought back and seemed fine except for a nightmare or two. If the author does resurrect the character, it shouldn’t be the equivalent of pressing a reset button and having everything back to normal. Stephen King’s Pet Semetary is a great example of this.

I think that's one reason I play hardcore characters in Diablo II. Once they die, there's no coming back.

10 comments:

gypsyscarlett said...

GRRM's, "Song of Ice and Fire"- is my all time favorite fantasy series. One of the things that appeals to me is the very fact that main beloved characters can die. They live in brutal times so it's quite realistic in that sense. And gawd- it really affects you emotionally.

Watership Down- oh, I love that novel. Of course he's not really, "dead". He's now living comfortably in Bunny heaven. :)

GunnerJ said...

I'm skeptical of the idea that something can work in "literary" novels, but not "mainstream" or genre fiction. I think that ideas like this are somewhat self-perpetuating: that is, there is a divide between "literary" fiction and "commercial" fiction because writers in the latter field purposely avoid the tropes, styles, and ideas of the former. Unfortunately, I think that "literary" fiction ends up being of a higher quality because of its willing to try these things.

What I guess I'm saying is that I don't see any reason why, say, SF can't also be "literary," if by literary we mean, focussed less on entertainment than on a particular artistic and/or moral/philosophical concept and the experiments in style and content necessary to serve that focus. Actually, I'm not even sure why entertainment, artistry, philosophy, and experiments in style and content cannot all coexist in one novel. The work of Nabokov and Gene Wolfe, the former a "literary" author and the later a "genre" author, provide ample examples of novels that combine all of them.

GunnerJ said...

As an aside, I really wish blogger would let you edit comments after they're posted =/

Marian said...

I'm skeptical of the idea that something can work in "literary" novels, but not “mainstream" or genre fiction.

I think it’s something I’ve seen more often (and usually done better) in literary fiction, which is partly due to the expectations I have for the genres. In literary fiction (Wuthering Heights, Lord of the Flies, Wide Sargasso Sea, The Thorn Birds), I don’t mind if everyone dies. Heck, that may well be part of the story and the theme. Everything in Death of a Salesman, for instance, pointed to Willy Loman’s decline and fall. I know going in that there’s going to be pain, and much of it, so it doesn’t come as a shock when the protagonist dies.

In speculative fiction, though, I don’t expect that. I want the protagonists to suffer and sacrifice some of their number for their victory – but I don’t expect the main character to die. It’s probably going to be more difficult for the battle to be won or the land to be saved if that happens. That’s not to say, of course, that speculative fiction has to be about those broad-stroke plots (though much of it is). However, even in quieter, more low-key stories like Watt-Evans’s Ethshar novels, it would be difficult to pull off the main character’s death. I think most readers expect happy endings here.

Which raises the question of whether it’s a good idea to flip expectations. That would depend on the story and the author – and the readers.

Unfortunately, I think that "literary" fiction ends up being of a higher quality because of its willing to try these things.

I think there are a lot of things writers of speculative fiction can learn from literary fiction – many techniques and literary devices, for instance. But there’s a reason I prefer writing and reading fantasies – they’re escapist. That might sound odd from someone who goes on and on about realism, but while I like characters who bleed realistically and worry about paying their bills realistically, I also want happy endings.

What I guess I'm saying is that I don't see any reason why, say, SF can't also be "literary," if by literary we mean, focussed less on entertainment than on a particular artistic and/or moral/philosophical concept and the experiments in style and content necessary to serve that focus. Actually, I'm not even sure why entertainment, artistry, philosophy, and experiments in style and content cannot all coexist in one novel.

The second approach is what I’d recommend, because the books that sell the best tend to be the ones that entertain the hoi polloi. :)

Marian said...

And gawd- it really affects you emotionally.

Gypsy - it's scared me. Those books are like a horror movie that I can't look at but can't stop watching. I have no idea who's going to die next. Really keeps you on the edge of your seat when you're reading.

And yes, Hazel is now the rabbit version of an archangel. :)

GunnerJ said...

Also I just want to say Gene Wolfe owns, everyone go buy and read Book of the New Sun and The Wizard Knight.

Mary B said...

Just adding a squee for Watership Down. By Frith I love that novel.

And I'm there with you, Marian. I like very few novels where the MC dies.

And I hate, hate, hate killing off a character I truly love when writing. It makes me cry like a baby and then I feel foolish. I've never killed off an MC and I'm not sure I have the stones for it.

Marian said...

One thing about Hazel's death, though, Mary - it was probably the most undeath-like death ever. :) I mean, it was calm and peaceful, he didn't feel any pain, the god of rabbits arrived to accompany him into the next life, and oh yes, his next life's going to be a lot of fun. It was like starting a great new adventure.

I love it anyway, because Hazel deserved his afterlife, and I still get a bit misty-eyed at the scene, but it's definitely not a typical death scene.

colbymarshall said...

I agree if you kill off a protag, you need to have a darn good reason for doing it. That said, I've done it before. Hm. But I DID have a good reason for it.

Marian said...

What was the good reason, Colby?