Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Why Killing Lead Characters Is A Good Idea (Even If You're Not A Horror Author)

You know those people. The heart-breakers. The ones who take your trust, nurture it, and who snap it in half the moment you get complacent. You know their names. Stephen King. George R. R. Martin. Frank Darabont. Brian Keene. Joss Whedon. David Eddings. They are the creators and dreamers who suck you into their stories, make you love their characters, get you to choose favorites, and then kill them right in front of you.

Some people accuse these creative hatchet men of using blunt force trauma on an audience's emotions just to get a reaction. The claim is that killing off main characters or giving you an ending where the bad guy comes out ahead is nothing more than a lack of talent trying to camouflage itself with shock. I've got news for you though; we need more stories that do this.

The Anatomy of The "Fuck-You" Ending

Comedian Reginald D. Hunter refers to a certain type of movie in one of his funnier stand-up bits. A young man is riding a bus in China when two men in ski masks with guns stand up, force the driver to pull over, and rob everyone on the bus of their valuables. The masked men then force the driver, a young and attractive woman, off the bus to the side of the road. Everyone sits on the bus and does nothing, waiting for it all to be over, except for a young man who stands up and demands to know if they're going to just let this happen.

That was the plan, now that you mention it.
The young man descends from the bus full of outrage and ready to defend the driver's honor. He interrupts the attackers before they can commence with the sexual part of the rape (though just barely), and is promptly beaten bloody and mostly senseless by the two professional criminals. The criminals take their loot and leave. The boy reaches out to the driver who is in shock and disarray. She abruptly snaps out of it, straightens her clothes, and walks to the bus. She throws the boy's backpack at him, shouts for him to go away, shuts the doors in his face and the bus drives off. The boy is limping down the highway with his backpack when he hears sirens, and he thinks that at least the driver sent an ambulance for him. The ambulance shoots past, along with a dozen police vehicles. Turns out the driver went over a cliff, and everyone on the bus was killed.

Dark stuff for a 12 minute movie, huh?

Dark endings, or fuck-you endings as Reg would call them, have some elements in common. They have a main character who is striving to do something, who fails in the goal (even if it looks like the character somehow succeeded), and an ending that shows you just how vulnerable people really are by refusing to cut away as this character's hopes, dreams, and even life are ground into dust beneath reality's harsh boot heel.

So Why Do We Need More Of These?

Why would anyone want to watch movies or read books with fuck-you endings? Why would you invest that amount of time, energy, and love into something just to watch it crushed before your helpless, hoping eyes? Well for some people there's catharsis in that. The thrill of hope and the sharp downturn of failure create one hell of a cocktail, as evidenced by the vitriol it foments in many people who are infuriated by these kinds of stories.

These stories have a higher purpose than just abusing your reader's heart strings though. They create tension; not just in the story someone's reading, but in every story.

Really though, you didn't see it coming when they cast him as Lord Stark?
Visualize a world without stories like Game of Thrones for a minute. A world where in the end of The Mist the father, son, schoolteacher and friends drove out into a normal world and survived the monstrous trauma of the creatures in the fog. A world where every character in every story managed to make it through and beat the odds.

You know what audiences would be in that world? Complacent.

This same point was touched on by Eric Vespe in his article here, but it bears repeating. If every book you ever read had the main characters succeed and make it through the certain death of the big climax, what would you have? A world of action movie heroes and schmaltzy "but I thought you were dead!" reveals that lets the audience lean back in their seats and yawn at the supposed "threats" to the movie's heroes and heroines. A world where no matter how big the explosions or how fast-paced the gun fights the audience knows the heroes are going to come through unscathed.

Unless you kill them.

As soon as you show the audience you're not dicking around they are going to be on the edge of their seats. Suddenly every fight with sword-wielding thugs or car chase through crowded streets represents real danger. In a world where main characters are not sacrosanct there's a good chance no one is going to stop the executioner from dropping the sword on the hero's neck, and the plucky heroine might not get the miracle cure for the plague before the last page. Even if you're not reading a book by an author known for killing fan favorite characters there's always going to be that question in your mind; is this book the one where the author decides to take off the kid gloves?

Even if you're not writing books with fuck-you endings in them you're benefiting from authors who have. So before you condemn these endings as Nihilistic shock-and-awe, realize what they're doing for your stories.

Here's a big ole' book of fuck-you endings. Check it out!
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1 comment:

  1. See my guest blog Sometimes Someone's Gots to Die at