I’ve killed off characters in my books. There are several in particular who I mourned as the author, and still others who I really hadn’t noticed. It seems to be a popular past-time in fiction to strategically murder personalities that we, the readers or viewers, have fallen in love with.
I know everyone hated to see Coulson go in Marvel Avengers, myself included. But then, Joss Whedon has made a name for himself as one of those directors who has no qualms offing a beloved character for the sake of driving up tension. But, of course it’s more than that.
Yes, the tension goes up, but it also has a profound effect on all the other characters on either the page or the screen. As storytellers, we’re told this is good. And in part it is. Life is not without loss, and storytelling is an art that is at its heart about life in all its gritty, beautiful detail.
It’s becoming a cheap trick.
Without spoiling dozens of popular stories across several venues (TV, Movies, Novels) I can say that I have seen no less than 7 traumatic deaths in the last couple of years alone. Some of them I even knew were coming at the very start of the story, which is a problem in and of itself.
As a storyteller myself I have to sit up and take notice. While I understand the impact a death like that has on the story-line and on the other characters, I have found myself sitting back as a reader/viewer feeling cheated and manipulated by the author/director.
This should alarm us.
We are becoming desensitized to this sort of story mechanic. That’s not to say we can’t keep using it, but more to say that we must be very, very careful when we do. If we must kill off a beloved character, then it has to hit our emotional buttons on every level. It has to mean something both to us as authors and to the story itself, or our readers will feel the cheapness of it.