When in doubt, kill a character.
Death is a profound, monolithic thing. No matter who you are, how money you have and what you accomplish, eventually, none of that will save you from the jaws of oblivion (Or your afterlife of choice, which is a lot less poetical than I was going for here, but I don’t want anyone to feel left out just because I’m trying to paint a nihilistic image to make a point, which will now be all but lost because of this overlong and ultimately pointless aside.)
People fear or revere it. Every major religion must confront the question of what it means.
It’s serious business, is what I’m getting at here.
At least it is to everyone but a large number of writers in every form of media one can imagine. To them, death is the wild card they always have up their sleeve in the grand poker game we call ‘writing’.
Need to convince the audience that the situation is dangerous? Kill a character.
Need something shocking for sweeps week? Kill a character.
Need to prove that the status quo is changing? Kill a character.
Want people to think your largely series finale or crossover event was important? Kill a bunch of characters.
Tragedy? Death. Comedy? Death. Drama? Death. Birth? Death. Love? Death.
Like any trope, this isn’t inherently bad. There are countless moving, meaningful and yes, even satisfying death scenes that have been written and even in the realm of those that aren’t no one is going to begrudge the deaths of red shirts horror villains, or that one really annoying guy.
Death, like anything is an event and it can be used well.
But we’re not going to talk about it being used well. No, we’re going to talk about those times when death is not only cheap, but unnecessary, not only in-universe, but in a meta sense as well. That’s right, folks, we’re talking about LOL Deaths.
Old school readers might remember the term from my other blog, which was mainly focused on deaths in comic books. Here I’m going to refine that idea and try not to get so much into the fan wank of individual examples.
What is a LOL Death?
Much like a LOL Cat, a LOL Death is utterly pointless, usually has no effect on the audience beyond irritation, and yet remains completely ubiquitous in out culture because it’s cheap content and people far more clever used it before to great effect.
Believe it or not, back in the day, death was largely a thing that happened to villains and in back stories. A major character dying was a special, world altering thing. That’s what The Night Gwen Stacy Died is such a well thought of story that has repercussions in Spider-man comics to this day.
Which, as it turns out, was part of the problem. The story of Gwen Stacy’s death and other, similar plots were both critical, PR, and financial successes. So naturally, everyone wants to do it. All too often, the death of a developed character is done not to serve the story, but to manipulate the audience and convince them that what is happening is Very Important for one reason or another.
And that, at its heart is a LOL Death; a death of a developed character that adds nothing to the story, and serves either no purpose, or a redundant purpose.
For example, almost any example of Women in Refrigerators fits this. While they are stated to serve as motivation for Our Hero, most of the time, Our Hero is already opposed to the person killing their loved ones. It’s like pushing a car when someone inside already has their foot on the gas; it might feel like you accomplished something, but things were already headed in that direction.
Along the same lines, whenever a writer killed a character (I will be using ‘character’ to mean ‘developed character’ throughout) to prove that a villain is dangerous or that a situation is serious, this is almost certainly a LOL Death. If a character is known to have a death touch, and we’ve seen that death touch kill things, we don’t need someone who could be used in future stories to hurl themselves stupidly onto those killing hands.
This is notorious in comic book events, especially crossovers, where it’s already understood that the status quo won’t be changing much or for long, so in order to pretend something important can possibly happen, they definitely kill off some D-list characters (because death is the ultimate change, you see) and may kill off an A-lister who will return to life within three years (because the thing you never change is marketability).
LOL Deaths are also characterized by disrespect toward the character. They are often sudden, humiliating, or ironic and almost invariably brutal. Victims of LOL Deaths rarely just keel over. Instead, they are impaled in the middle of talking about how they survived, torn limb from limb, or be burned alive on screen.
And once they’re dead, the indignation continues. While their closest friends will be shocked, angry or grief-stricken (possibly enough to earn their own LOL Death in a suicide charge), this will only last approximately until the end of the scene. Lucky specimens might be mentioned or even buried later on camera, but often no one cares and their corpse is left to rot where it dropped, never to be seen again.
If there is a funeral for one of these poor saps, don’t expect that scene to be remotely about them. It will be about the person who is guilty or should be guilty about their death, or about the plot that’s going on. Expect the funeral to be ruined by a loud argument or the plot itself spilling over into the funeral home.
Those who are only slightly more lucky than the former will instead end up as another number on a tally of the dead. This one has become particularly blatant in the X-men series after the Decimation event. Most dead mutants are mourned not because they were a person with feelings and thought and past heroism, but because the executive-mandated countdown to the extinction of the species went down by one.
After the funeral, expect these characters to never be mentioned again. Until they’re resurrected (usually so they can be killed again.)
What isn’t a LOL Death
Not all pointless deaths are equal. A key element in a LOL Death is that it didn’t have to happen from a narrative standpoint or a meta standpoint. It’s just a stunt or ham-handed attempt manipulate the audience.
Therefore, no deaths that resolve plots (but not those that just truncate them) count. If the hero solves the problem by killing the villain and his top henchman, it isn’t a LOL Death, no matter how poorly executed.
Same goes for direct motivation. No matter how lazy the ‘dead parents/little sister/dog/imaginary friend’ back story is, if it is the true motivation for the character, then it isn’t a LOL Death. Note that this doesn’t absolve the aforementioned women in refrigerators because there, the death serves as ‘extra’ motivation.
Also exempt are deaths done for tone reasons. Again, I’m not excusing the ‘things are serious now because there’s a corpse’ school of plotting, but some works use death to enhance just how generally crappy the world they take place in is. Usually this is pure cynicism (not my thing), but sometimes the reason is to inject the ‘realism’ that death is random and merciless and/or how cool is it that I’m a nihilist?
While I despise that kind of writing, death serves their purposes appropriately.
Meta reasons in the form of the character’s actor or permission to use the character no longer being available also get a pass, no matter how bad and off screen. If the character literally cannot be in the piece anymore, excising them quickly and cleanly is perfectly acceptable. Spitefully killing a character because the actor is leaving, however is another matter.
And again, I stress that this only applies to developed characters. Extras, red shirts and typical disposable love interest who will be dead by the end of the episode aren’t part of this. Which leads me to…
What’s so wrong about LOL Deaths?
Obviously, this is a popular tool in the writer’s bag of tricks, why else would it be literally everywhere? What drama, action series or comic book hasn’t bumped up ratings with a ‘Tonight Someone Dies’ promo, right?
Well, far be it for me to discourage lazy writing. I partake a bit myself to be honest. But there are two very good reasons to use death more carefully:
A developed character represents a finite resource in any medium and a LOL Death, which by definition serves no purpose, removes story resources that could be better used elsewhere.
Not only that, but they represent investment that the audience has put into the show, both in emotions and time watching that character’s development. Killing them off for nothing not only takes away one more reason to keep watching, but trains them to stop investing as much in other characters, seeing as you’re willing to off them for a cheap stunt. And an audience that isn’t invested is one that doesn’t watch/read regularly.
And on top of that, most television shows and comic books aren’t written by a single person, but a succession of writers. This makes the attrition worse because a later writer may have had a much better use for that character than proving the Sir Makesyourheadexplode can cause craniums to rupture violently if you try and headbutt his fist.
Especially irksome when the reason for a LOL Death is related to ‘deck clearing’, a situation in which a writer killed off a regular either to make room for their own characters or simply because they have no use for them.
2) It Doesn’t Work
Well, it works as a publicity stunt still because everyone will clamor to see who dies and to make sure it’s not a character they care about.
But was a way to manipulate the audience; to convince them to things are dangerous or to shock them like the snap seen in The Night Gwen Stacy Died? Not so much.
See, as I’ve said, it’s everywhere now. The ‘kill everyone!’ philosophy is environmental at this point; one of the cornerstones of the ‘gritty’, ‘raw’, ‘real’ and ‘edgy’ family of buzzword labels for fiction. We expect someone to die now and frankly… we don’t care.
Not only don’t we care, but we generally know exactly who is safe and who is not because of who we have to look up on Wikipedia to recognize. And anyone who dies who we recognize will be coming back is the series runs long enough. It’s no longer a tension builder so much as a tedious game to figure out how horrifically the minor character is going to bite it.
We come in knowing someone’s going to die and so we don’t invest too much and it’s hardly shocking when a darkness and death obsessed sub-genre creates yet another fake corpse from what used to be a character and expects accolades.
Think about it: what was the most truly surprising moment in The Dark Knight? Was it any one of the deaths, some of which were quite unexpected? Or was it when people steadfastly failed to be murdered by grittiness and cynicism?
Arguably, that was Nolan’s point. And if it was, I’m glad I’m not alone on this.
What I’m trying to say here is; next time, when you write something and you come to a place where it would be really easy to stick in a cheap death, maybe stop and think about why you’re doing this and what it’s really achieving.
You never know: maybe characterization, atmosphere and complex motivation will serve you even better.