Character Assassination

Certainly this week, there’s been a lot of increasing chatter about the upcoming finale of the tv show LOST (it’s penultimate episode is this evening in the US).  Now, I’ve liked this show from the get-go and am excited, anxious and incredibly curious to see how the show runners have decided to end it – but I’ll tell you one reason in particular I have really enjoyed and appreciate this show.
Characters die.
Left and right, good-guys, bad-guys and not-quite-sure guys have all bitten the dust over the course of the last six seasons.  Take a look at this table from Lostipedia (SPOILERS IF YOU’RE NOT UP-TO-DATE) about the major characters (those who get “starring” in the opening credits, not guest appearances or “featuring”).  Of the 29 “starring” characters, a whopping 17 had died.  Even of those that I would call the most important “Top 15” characters, about half have shed their mortal coil.

And I think this is great.  Why?  Because not knowing whether your favorite character might or might not survive makes for great dramatic tension.  Many of us loved “The X-Files” – but did we ever really worry that Mulder or Scully weren’t going to escape that week’s monster?  And so the episode became about curiously following the characters we loved through interesting adventures – which is fun, but loses a chance at real tension.  In fact, I would argue that the great dramatic failure of The Lord of the Rings is that in this incredible epic story in which the very fate of the world balances, only one of the nine major characters bites it — that’s Boromir, and it’s because there needed to be some sort of karmic retribution for briefly giving into the Ring’s corruption.

In the same vein, I tip my hat to JK Rowling for not falling for the conceit of a completely happy ending in the war versus He Who Must Not Be Named – she’d knocked off enough important people in Harry’s life that in reading “Deathly Hallows” you weren’t really sure who was going to make it through to the other side.

Now, it’s not easy to lose a character that you’ve grown attached to.  What this means for a show, book or movie series (anyone really worried about James Bond getting out of that inferno? I didn’t think so) is that the creators have to have the willingness not to hang onto a cash-cow character forever and the courage that their story-telling is so compelling that the reader-viewer is willing to hang in through something traumatic endings – but I think the emotional bang you get for them is more than worth it.
Do you agree or am I just morbid?

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17 thoughts on “Character Assassination

  1. Not morbid, but I think you have to see a story a certain way to be okay with that. Some characters are just for fun, but some last a lifetime, especially childhood ones. I think a show dies when my favorite character gets the axe.

  2. No, I totally agree.
    The thing that irritated me the most with Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series isn't the fact that Bella's a complete simp and yet pretty much every boy she meets falls in love with her. It's the fact that every main character lives. (And the fact that the oh-so-scary Volturi are like, "Oh, you say it's fine? Well, great! Bye!")
    I'm glad the big three lived in Harry Potter, but JK Rowling wasn't shy about killing off other characters, and that's good and it makes sense. Because if we're supposed to take Voldemort seriously, that means there has to be a body count and that has to include people we love.
    I get really sad when characters I love die (Shonda Rimes, curse you!) but it makes sense. People die and TV and books should reflect that. :)

  3. Well, I do not watch Lost, so I dont care about spoilers! But it seems to me that a story that can survive the loss of major characters is important.

  4. It reminds me of a great section from the Princess Bride:Look. (Grownups skip this paragraph.) I'm not about to
    tell you this book has a tragic ending. I already said in the very
    first line how it was my favorite in all the world. But there's a lot
    of bad stuff coming up, torture you've already been prepared for, but
    there's worse. There's death coming up, and you better understand this:
    Some of the wrong people die. Be ready for it. This isn't Curious
    George Uses the Potty. Nobody warned me and it was my own fault (you'll
    see what I mean in a little) and that was my mistake, so I'm not
    letting it happen to you. The wrong people die, some of them, and the
    reason is this; life is not fair. Forget all the garbage your parents
    put out. Remember Morgenstern. You'll be a lot happier. That's just how life is. Sometimes the wrong people die.John

  5. Emmi — I suppose I should make it clear that I mean this for stories/shows in which there are death-defying things on a regular basis — that is, if people are in peril all the time, but no one ever dies, then the peril loses its dramatic tension.

  6. Kelly — going into Deathly Hallows, I never thought that any of the big three would be imperiled and that I expected Dumbledore to make some sort of Gandalfian resurrection — so I was glad that dead was dead and that she made me unsure of whether they all would make it.

  7. gw — on SciFi Media, Budd brought up the George RR Martin Ice & Fire books as a great example of a great epic, because everyone and everything seems to be on the table. Not knowing who's going to make it or where the story HAS to go (to maintain certain characters and relationships) is really fun for the reader.

  8. One thing LOST has done is have a BIG cast and so no one is completely indispensable (and in many ways it's been about the "why" not the "who") — whereas in a show where you visit the same folks week in and week out, that can become a big investment.

  9. Got it. Much more interesting point! I wouldn't call that morbid. It's the way our natural world is, and our brains are accustomed to that changing cycle of life. This is ironic in light of what you said – but Lost has a very unnatural feel to it. I assume that's part of the plot (I haven't watched any recently).
    I think it depends on how you build up the character. If they're the best thing going in the show, or as graywolf says if it's a small cast, it's short-sighted to kill them off. Althouhgh I assume most of the reasons are the actors quit (or are fired….I'll not say anymore on that topic). ;)

  10. People do become bored when they know that at the end of the day the goodies are immune. Some people just like to watch the good vs. evil for the sake of somethin' to watch, but most people like watchin' these things for that tension and excitement. When you know that the goodies will win, and that the baddies will get locked away/banished/killed/destroyed et cetera, it takes a lot of that tension out and it becomes about as exciting as cooking dinner; you don't like it any less, but it lacks a certain excitement knowing exactly what'll happen.

  11. Darkbrady — thanks for the comment! Your comment about Spiderman reminds me of that moment in "The Goblet of Fire" where Voldemort kills Cedric Diggory. In that instance she totally transformed the series, I thought — out of kid-lit and into something mainstream and worth it for everyone.

  12. Aye; it was around about that point in the series that should started to really introduce the darker elements of the story and veer away slightly from the more childish (I hate to say that word, 'cuz it's not quite what I mean, but it's all I can think of x.x) atmosphere it had, like in the first book.

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