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When Anyone Can Die

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Aug. 31, 2019

In a story when any character is plausibly eligible to die, the stakes are high. We worry for everyone, even main characters than in other stories wouldn't be on the chopping board at all. It's a great premise to have for your story setup, because it makes the audience be intimately engaged with the characters, and pay attention to every happening, as it could lead to their favourites getting an exit, ignominious or not.

Game of Thrones owes a good part of its fame and endurance to this exact trait (no, we don't talk about the final season, or the one before last).

However, just like many things in art and in creating atmosphere, even the most sincere “Anyone Can Die” setup isn't actually “Anyone Can Die”. At least not until the very end, during the final scene of the story.

And that's natural. For the story to continue, some characters have to survive to propel it forward.

The trick, therefore, is to create a good enough illusion so that it feels like anyone can die, when in reality, not everyone can.

There are many ways to create this illusion. This is how I do it, but there are other avenues towards the same effect, as is the case with art:

1. Only pick one (or two at the most) characters that Will Not Die.

You must know which characters are the ones that will survive and beat the odds. Once you make the decision of who that will be, you must ensure that the way they survive isn't due to ‘plot armor’ (i.e. surviving situations in a way that the audience feels they survived only because the creator willed it) but due to circumstances, people and their own agency.

2. Do not let the character that Will Not Die be unscathed.

Sometimes, death might be more merciful than survival. Utilize that for your Won't Die character: make them survive, but pay for that survival. It could be emotional cost, or it could be physical cost. It could be something long lasting or something that hampers the character for a period of time. In short, make your character earn his/her survival.

3. Since Everyone Else Can Die, let them.

If you're doing your job of character design properly, most or all of the cast of your webcomic or story will be interesting, engaging, promising or important to the plot. They will also have flaws or character traits that lead them to make certain decisions. Sometimes, those decisions may have fatal consequences. Other times, it might be other circumstances that lead down the same path.

No matter how awesome your characters are, let them die. Let them leave a hollow place where they'd been, let them be missed. Not just by your cast but also by your audience.

4. Leave one small chance that even the character that Won't Die, will.

I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but you must always work with character pairs in your stories. What I mean by that is that for every main character you have, a secondary or supporting character must be in a position to step up and take center stage on the unlikely event that your main character does something you absolutely can't save them from.

If that happens, to preserve the illusion of Anyone Can Die, you must allow them to- even though that wasn't your plan. Let the understudy now be the main event and the new character that Won't Die.

Do NOT let them die, and then bring them back to life with any kind of mumbo jumbo that has little to no payoff in the end.

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AmeliaP at 12:59PM, Aug. 31, 2019

Great article! Bringing a "sleazy and soulless entrepreneur tactic" to the table, the author has to be clear about their IP lifetime. If you want to create a perpetual brand, like Batman, it isn't a good idea to kill your main character in the first... 30 issues. If the story is not a perpetual brand, but it's a long life time SELF_CONTAINED story like Game of Thrones (last man standing logic), go ahead and kill everybody but the chosen one.

usedbooks at 10:58AM, Aug. 31, 2019

Genre definitely makes the difference. An espionage or whodunnit film (or horror/thriller/war, but I don't usually watch/read those) with a weakass villain and nobody dies annoys me. But if I'm watching a fantasy/family adventure, and they start offing likable characters (minor, major, or other), I'm out.

Jason Moon at 9:08AM, Aug. 31, 2019

I think it is important to kill off characters in a good horror story. The conflict doesn't just dance and prance around playing tag with the characters.

usedbooks at 5:35AM, Aug. 31, 2019

Also, the audience doesn't have to legitimately believe characters can die for them to empathize with their fears -- for the same reason spoilers don't ruin movies. If a story is well-written (and acted), you can immerse and enjoy. And, to be honest, a REALISTIC happy-endings story in a dangerous setting is much more challenging to write than a tragic one.

bravo1102 at 3:50AM, Aug. 31, 2019

Some of us go into story creation knowing people have to die. And sometimes it surprises us just who gets into the line of fire. Other times it's a conscious progression. And of course in a whodunnit- if a really important character gets killed off too early-- you know they're the murderer; especially if a lawyer.

usedbooks at 3:50AM, Aug. 31, 2019

Btw, killing off central characters in a work that death isn't really part of (like sitcoms) is just bad. There are ways to write actors out of a series without breaking your series' rules/mood.

bravo1102 at 3:45AM, Aug. 31, 2019

There are stories where this is necessary and there are others where it doesn't enter the equation. You're doing a war story, you bet everyone can die and to be realistic everyone should at least get wounded. There's a reason some units in World War 2 had casualty rates over 100%. But when someone doesn't-- well that can be the story in and of itself. "The Guy who was never a casualty" and just all the near misses he had and how he reacts to everyone one else around him getting hit and how they react to him as time goes on. And there are gory horror stories with high body counts. You better have a few close calls in there for the main players as the bodies pile up. And don't get put off about the "losing readers" because their favorite dies. They'll be hooked by wondering just who will make it through.You set up hazardous situations where people can die, someone better. If you put in miraculous revivals, it better matter. BIG TIME. Princess Bride pulled it off. GoT really didn't.

usedbooks at 3:44AM, Aug. 31, 2019

It is important to set the stakes and ground rules for your world. Tbh, I don't like stories where people die -- but I like being concerned that they could. So it's a weird balancing act. In any shorter work, the stakes are always high because the rules of the game are unknown. In a work with time travel or super powers, stakes are lower because of do-over possibilities. Alex Hirsch talks about stakes in his Gravity Falls commentary. You never really worry for the main characters lives, so he sets relationship stakes or puts out the possibility of the main characters having to leave town forever. (And then, in the finale, all bets are off as an ultra powered villain starts snapping recurring characters out of existence.) Which is another strategy in a long-runner. The characters are "safe" for the most part (at least in terms of existence vs non-existance) until the finale, when kid gloves come off and anything goes.

Tantz_Aerine at 1:08AM, Aug. 31, 2019

I defined in my article what I refer to as 'plot armor'. If you throw your audience out of the story immersion by making them react to a character surviving with disbelief, then that's plot armor and it's inherently bad writing. You should be crafty enough to make them survive the odds plausibly, is what I'm saying ;)

Tantz_Aerine at 1:04AM, Aug. 31, 2019

We aren't quite disagreeing Hushicho. Killing characters just for the sake of killing them IS bad writing. Killing them off lightly or with deaths that aren't viscerally important to the narrative is also a no-no. There are story types where a character death occurrence should be extremely rare. HOWEVER. I also find your estimation that when a character dies you lose readers a false one. People have favourite characters but if they don't primarily come for your story, then they won't stick around for the character either, dead or alive. Death is not 'often' a cheap or clumsy tactic- that kind of death is in simply badly written stories. The article wasn't referring to those. Lastly, I will not discourage people from using a tactic because it's 'overused'/'poorly used' (assuming it is). I will simply encourage them to use it right. Of course, if it riles you up this much, and you hate it this much, it's not for you and you absolutely should steer away from it :) Oh, and one more thing:

hushicho at 12:28AM, Aug. 31, 2019

Stakes can be high, I should say first and foremost, without anyone having to die. Injury, pain, even just plain conflict, loss of a treasured artifact or keepsake, loss of memories -- all these things lend themselves much better to the dramatic investment needed to keep readers' interest. Death is more often a cheap and frequently clumsy tactic that guarantees an extreme reaction, but it doesn't guarantee (and isn't as likely to produce) a positive one. I think it's much better to encourage people to select better approaches to writing than it is to point them towards the overused and often poorly-used tactics that usually just come off as unpleasantly manipulative. Because quite honestly, they most often are.

hushicho at 12:22AM, Aug. 31, 2019

I just can't agree much with this. Too much of it is just a fixation on something that was never good; Joss Whedon's talk about "plot armor" and "high stakes" just tend to be ways for him to justify objectively poor writing and stunts where all he does is incorporate elements typically outside of the genre he's writing, for example. Killing off characters shouldn't be done lightly, and it's not something that, in and of itself, adds anything necessary to any story. There are far many more ways to make the stakes seem high without killing off characters. Remember, every character is going to be someone's favorite. And by getting rid of them, you're getting rid of the readers who were reading for them. It more often gives an impression that the author doesn't really respect the characters or their readers enough, if characters are discarded even remotely easily.

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