If I’ve talked a lot on this blog about badly written deaths, it’s because death is one of those powerful tools that every writer knows about, but few know how to successfully wield. They just see it as a means of adding drama, of creating tension, a means of imposing reality where it was never imposed before—not as a meaningful event that is a story unto itself.
Yes, some genres demand deaths. Military stories, tragedies, survival horror—you’re not going to get away without death in these. The problem comes when death is show-horned into works that don’t need deaths in narratives where death isn’t really warranted or in ways where the set-up and execution fail. As I try to impress on everyone who reads this: even overused tropes aren’t inherently bad, just the misuse of them.
My email inbox tells me that a lot of people don’t get this. Every time I complain about Lol Deaths, or similar manipulative, poorly-written practices, I get the same emails. According to some people, I’m just not mature enough to accept that ‘death happens’ (as if death in fiction isn’t the choice of a writer, but an actual naturally occurring phenomena that writers can’t control), or I don’t understand the artistic choice to kill a character even when I’ve been literally told by the creators in question that didn’t know what to do with them, or that without death, works become somehow boring and predictable regardless of anything else in the work.
And the big one is that they just plain accuse me of being against death in fiction at all. Which… okay as a general rule I avoid it and prefer writers who avoid it as a cheap emotional trick. I feel that the only times one should kill a developed character is when it either completes their story or when there are no more stories to tell with them.
I especially hate it when a character Is created and killed to make me feel something I’m not experiencing the work to feel. Case in point: Joss Whedon.
As much as I adore the guy’s dialog, love many of the characters he’s created, and enjoy his plotting… I can never say I’m a fan of Joss Whedon because of his constant indulgence in screwing with my emotions in shows I was watching because they were fun and exciting, not because they tugged at my heartstrings. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I hate being manipulated and by now, Whedon is so damn predictable that not only do I know I’m being manipulated, I can usually predict with some accuracy what character he’s going to use to manipulate me so I make sure not to care about them.
But not all deaths are bad! Some of them are well thought out, well-planned, well executed and well-targeted. This week, I’ll be highlighting some of my favorite deaths and explaining what made them good.
Let’s start with one of the more off-the-wall ones: a death that managed to both salvage a character and make me laugh.
The Core is not a movie that even pretends to be serious in any way—something the trailer makers and the critics never got. It’s also one of those movies that pretty expressly plans to kill off all but the most important characters one by one for shlock (not shock) value. Most of these deaths are stupid, if not annoying with one just being damn heartbreaking for no reason. But then there’s the one death that, when I watched this in a theater, got the entire theater laughing.
So all throughout the movie, one of the characters is a self-important asshole who is only trying to save the world so he can capitalize on that with a book deal. He’s a jerk to everyone around him, he’s annoying as all hell and every five minutes, he literally pauses to record some stuffy notes aggrandizing himself.
By the time in the movie where everything is going to hell you really want this guy to die. You want one of the other characters to grab him and throw him out into the Earth’s mantle to melt. We’ve already lost two likable characters in ways that made you sad and probably a little angry and we’re all wondering why he isn’t the one who was crushed to death while talking about his adorable little girls back home.
And then he has to get heroic on us. It turns out that the solution to saving the world involves spreading nukes around the core and detonating them in sequence, only one nuke’s detonator is broken and must be detonated manually. The jerk reluctantly volunteers and is jettisoned, waiting for the right time to set off the nuke.
While waiting for his demise, he takes out his recorder and starts to record another overwrought narration. Only to stop halfway in a sudden realization that both he and the recorder are about to be atomized and then crushed under the literal weight of the world. Just before the countdown finishes, he clicks the recorder off, stares at it and mutters ‘what the fuck am I doing?’
Unsurprisingly, one of the writers on this movie was John Rogers, master of writing things to please audiences and not artistic pretension and this scene is a master class on what does and doesn’t work. It’s not the heroism that makes this death good. In fact, generic heroic sacrifices are among he top WORST deaths because they’re usually written such that a tiny amount of common sense would spare the character and still get the desired effect for their side.
In fact, The Core already had a heroic sacrifice and it is markedly not satisfying because we lose a funny and likable character for no gain.
But here, we get a character we didn’t like, who we wanted to see die and we actually have him become aware of at least one of his terrible traits at the last moment, going out on a funny line that is one of the most memorable in the film.
What’s more is that if you learn something about the behind-the-scenes politics, The Core was a Science Hero Pulp Comedy that the studio tried to turn into a big, dumb action adventure and the writers, especially Rogers revolted. They allowed some action beats, like the deaths, but tried to sneak the jokes back in in contexts where the execs might think they’re just generic bad action dialog. Audiences didn’t get it at first, but for me at least it worked and the timing of this death is part of why.
How is that you might ask? Because it came after the deaths the studio wanted that pissed me off. It’s a pallet cleanser that reminded me that the vast majority of the movie was silly pulp science fiction I was enjoying so that as the end of the movie approaches, I’m thinking about that and not the ‘serious’ deaths.
They used the right character in the right context to get the right effect with their death. It wasn’t trying to manipulate me, it was just setting the tone back on its right keel and that’s how you do death in a movie like this.
For this next one, I will admit that there were stupid reasons behind it, but this is a blog for a superhero genre writer, so I felt obligated to search for a good comic book death. There actually are a few: The death of Marvel’s Captain Marvel, the original death of Jean Grey, and hell, even the Death of Superman. I would make a joke about the death of Jason Todd here, but really he only came back stupider and more annoying. Still, I think the best death in all of Superhero comics is Supergirl’s.
You see, when the original Crisis on Infinite Earths was starting up (before DC had a Crisis every three years), there were two very stupid directives. First, to make it seem important, every writer had to offer up a character to die in it. Literally no other reason than to lend weight to the event. Yep. Worse, the big brass in DC had decided there were too many Kryptonians. By then Superman, billed as the Last Son of Krypton, had a whole slew of relatives, pets and villains from Krypton and it was hurting him by making that one single appellation untrue more than, say… getting rid of all those characters to support his least-used sobriquet.
So yes, the plan was for there to be no other Kryptonians in the new continuity following the Crisis (guess how long that lasted) and as such, it was decided that Supergirl would die in the event.
But what. A. Death.
In a critical battle, the Anti-Monitor, a universe-destroying godlike being, has Our Heroes on the ropes and will surely destroy them before they can find a means of escape. At least that was his plan. He didn’t expect Supergirl to apply herself directly to his grill, raining punches down on him like he was Kyle and Yost, she was me and the Crisis was the Best Dream Ever.
I will repeat that: the Anti-Monitor is the baddest of the badasses. Joker? He’s the joke compared to Anti-Monitor. Darksied? If the Anti-Monitor told him to, he’d start hugging kittens and start spelling his name right. Parallax? The Anti-Monitor wouldn’t even bother rolling up a newspaper to squash him.
And Sueprgirl beats the shit out of him. The only thing that stops the One Million Punch Jamboree is a single lucky shot in desperation that finally downs her. And by that time, he is so severely damaged from her onslaught that he runs the hell away to go lick his wounds, allowing the heroes to fall back and regroup as well.
Now while this was a heroic sacrifice, Kara didn’t just buy time, she had a real and lasting effect on the story. She wasn’t just a speedbump in the Anti-Monitor’s way, she did real damage to him and forced his retreat. That is incredibly rare I’ve sadly found. Most heroic sacrifices are utterly useless because we know the bad guy is still going to get their confrontation with the remaining heroes. Just leaping onto their sword or into the path of their gun only means something because the writer is pretending they do. When you actually make the bad guy run away? That means something.
So there may have been very stupid, short-sighted reasons (that they KEEP REPEATING) that Supergirl died, but the writers made the best of it and made it count, which gets plenty of credit from me.
And finally, we come to probably the death scene that probably influenced my philosophy on character deaths the most because I saw it early in my career of thinking about the shows I watched and barely any other character death has affected me as much in a manner that wasn’t making me angry at choices made behind the scenes.
Today, Beast Wars, the transformers animated series from the mid-nineties has not aged well in terms of the attractiveness of the CGI animation, but the stories, characters and setting still stand out even in an era that gave us Batman: TAS and Gargoyles in terms of animated fare. And yes, this is another situation what I am unashamed to say that an animated show blew ‘adult’ programming out of the water.
If for no other reason than Dinobot. Dinobot is a member of the Predacon faction, the villains of the piece. He is a robot that turns into a Veloci… okay, Utahraptor, but his soul is that of an honor-bound Shakespearean warrior. So ironclad is his honor that he switched sides when he decided the Predacons were dishonorable and remained loyal to the heroes (Maximals) even through their distrust and sometimes outright hatred toward him.
He remains haunted by his misdeeds and mistakes, especially when, thinking he was doing the right thing, he turned over an information disc containing information about the future of Earth (the setting is in prehistoric Earth) to Megatron, who then plots to use that knowledge to wipe out the human race before they ever rose to prominence.
Already damaged and suffering power issues over several episodes, Dinobot learns of Megatron’s plan and defies orders to go after the disc. This was his sin and he will do his best to mitigate it even though he knows there is no such thing in his mind as absolution.
What follows is five minutes of AWESOME where Dinobot takes on his former comrades, defeating them even as he is first disarmed and then heavily damaged. His onboard computer warns him that he will die irretrievably die if he doesn’t stop and shut down—so he overrides the computer and goes after his former leader, Megatron.
Megatron stops him with a hostage and disarms him again, mocking him by questioning what a warrior is without his weapon.
Dinobot’s answer? “A Warrior still!” And goes after Megatron (who is twice his side, armed with a gauss rifle, upgraded to a level above Dinobot and also a T-rex) with his bare goddamn hands and wrests the disc from him, using the last of his energy reserves (and therefore lifeforce) to destroy the disc and save the future of two worlds.
Here’s the thing: Dinobot’s story was over. They had told some awesome stories with him dealing with his pride, his conflict over changing sides, his wrestling with his mistakes and misdeeds. He had come through many character arcs and as an established tormented soul who lived by the Code of the Warrior as he saw it, dying as a good and true warrior, atoning for his misdeeds and saving the lives of billions if not trillions was the proper capstone to his character.
The writers took their time, built him up, guided his arc to this point and then devised the perfect conclusion for him. It combined his honor, his pride, his former allies, one of those mistakes he’s beat himself up over continually, and they made us feel that Dinobot knew what he was doing and why. They made us understand that it was worth it, yes even to Dinobot. When he died, if you were a fan of the series, you were not sad.
You were proud. Proud to have known this great and honorable warrior and seen him through to an end that fit him, that fit his tone and arc and the mood of the series. We were proud to have witnessed it even if we were too young to understand why.
So no: don’t tell me I just ‘don’t understand’ what the writer s trying to do. I know exactly what they’re trying to do. Don’t tell me they foreshadowed something when they failed to build to it. Don’t tell me I’m immature for not just lapping up what’s given to me as long as it’s wrapped in the cheap, paper guise of realism or ‘dark’.
If you are a writer, you shouldn’t get a pass for doing subject matter poorly just because it’s super-serious and edgy. You should be held to a single criteria: did you tell a good story? Not did you tell the story you wanted and to hell with the audience. Not did you generate the emotions you wanted without actually earning them. And certainly not did you come up with enough excuses for your bad writing to cover your ass.
If you are going to write a death, write a damn good one. Even if you can’t come up with a good reason to do it, make it worthwhile, make it matter, make it make sense for the story and don’t just try to force it in there. There are good deaths in fiction: you just have to work for them.
Or… I don’t know… learn to create drama and tension using character or circumstance or the actual plot of your story. That might work too.