Tag Archives: writing death

Q&A: A Death in the Story

I’m going to break this question into two pieces. I don’t normally like doing that here, but the example really drifts into a separate topic, and I don’t want to simply cull that out.

Do you think, instead of killing parents off for books, they could allow their kids to go on adventure or take the kids with them on adventures?

Yeah. You’re asking about a specific sub-genre and then asking, “but what about stepping out of the sub-genre?” Those stories already exist, in a number of forms.

Not every story about kids adventuring on their own comes from dead parents. As much as you can joke about Pokemon being a, “child neglect simulator,” there is a narrative there about children simply going out and playing. The series was inspired by, Satoshi Tajiri’s childhood hobby of collecting insects, and his experiences in rural Japan. (With a healthy dose of imaginative fancy.)

I’m going to break this into three groups. The parents are dead, the parents are alive but disinterested, and the parents are alive and active participants.

These are all different kinds of stories, and I’m being a little reductive with these classifications because we’re tracking a specific element across all the kinds of stories that use that.

Live long enough, and you will bury your parents. It’s inevitable. At some point, growing up, everyone realizes this. There’s no escape, we will all die someday. Realizing that is one of those critical moments in your growth from child to adult. How you deal with that knowledge is deeply personal to you as an individual. However, it also means losing a parent does force you to grow as a person.

So, there’s two separate versions of this: the parent dies a catalyst for character growth. I’ll be honest, there’s an entire genre of this, in many different forms of media, where a child or teen escapes the trauma of dealing with a parent’s death either into fantasy, or by running away. In cases like this, the parent needs to die for the child to experience and learn from that. These will usually be coming of age stories.

In some cases, you can even see variations of this genre with adults dealing with the death of their adult parent. There’s also a related genre with parents dealing with the loss of their child or spouse. Again the focus is confronting death and grief (or retreating into fantasy to avoid that) so if there’s no death, the story’s beats aren’t going to work.

So, in these cases, the crux of the story is leaning to deal with the loss of a parent, so yes, they do need to be dead for these to work. (As a quick aside, I can’t really cite any of these off the top of my head. I find this genre deeply depressing and tend to avoid it.) There is a related sub-genre of children dealing with a parent’s illness (terminal or otherwise), and all of the above permutations also exist, though ultimately, that is a different kind of story, and trying to transition from dealing with death to only dealing with the fear of death seriously alters the context, and the kind of story you’re telling.

The other side of this is, you can have stories kill off the parent in a cheap attempt to raise the stakes. I’m looking at Batman here.

To be clear, I don’t have anything against the idea of an orphan protagonist, when their parent’s death is just backstory to where they are, however I do dislike the practice of executing characters to cheaply manufacture drama.

The orphan child hunting down the individual who killed their parent is cliche, but, as character motivation for a revenge story goes, it works.

Does the parent need to be dead? Well, in this case, not really. They need to be “gone,” but that’s not necessarily the same as dead. An, “orphan,” child hunting down the people who took their family doesn’t require their family to be dead, simply off-stage.

Similarly, an “orphan,” who’s family is gone and is accidentally on an adventure doesn’t require the family to be dead. It’s been a while since I read C. S. Lewis, but as I recall the kids in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, aren’t coping with dead parents, even if they were sent to the countryside to avoid a very real risk of death.

I’m trying to keep things general here, but pretty much any portal fantasy that removes the child will start to get into this territory without needing to kill anyone.

I suppose, Harry Potter is a similar, though distinct variant here. Ignoring that Harry is an orphan, he is surrounded by the teachers who are, more or less, tasked with functioning as parents. While this is an awkward example, it’s worth remembering that sometimes there are other characters who take up a guardian role for a child, even if their actual family isn’t there. So, if I was being really serious about having a consistent continuity to examples, this should probably be further down the list.

One of the more disturbing transitions here is the idea that the child’s parents are there, but they don’t care. That may be a little harsh, because there is still some gradation between the protagonists of something like the Pokemon games, where the characters are set loose and assumed to be, “staying safe,” and examples like the film version of Buffy (1992), where her parents really don’t notice, or care, the condition Buffy comes home in. Though, as with Harry Potter above, Merrick (Donald Sutherland) does end up acting as a (slightly unhinged) parent to her.

There is a theme here I’m trying to ignore, but we should probably address. At some point, in the process of becoming an adult, you need to grow past the limitations your parents imposed, or can impose. Freud called this “killing,” them, and many writers seem to take that advice literally. Mentors (whether they’re your character’s actual parents or not) don’t need to die in service of the story. It’s an easy way to catalyze that transition, but, it is not necessary, and can be cheap through overuse.

I’m thinking of how a lot of fantasy stories have dead parents and I’m looking for a way to circumvent that for my own story without having the parents seem neglectful.

There’s a lot of stages in growing up, and stories can explore any of those experiences. This means: Yes, there’s room for stories about children adventuring either with their parents present and assisting, or absent for any number of reasons.

In normal circumstances, parents fill in as ad-hoc teachers for their children and their interests. This could overlap with their actual area of expertise, or it could be they’re trying to keep up with their kid’s interests. (Granted, the latter is less common in fiction.)

If you look back a second, there is an edge case where your character’s “parents” could be their actual teachers. It also fits with boarding school scenarios (like the Harry Potter example above.) It’s a slightly different dynamic, but you’re not chained to their adult oversight being blood relations.

So, you can have an adventure where the kids are going along with their parents, who are doing what they can to keep them safe. (So, they’re not going to intentionally put the children in harm’s way, or ask them to do something too dangerous.) They can still perform safe tasks, based on their age and aptitude, and start learning about that field.

Also, with older teens you can afford to give them significantly more autonomy. They’re not adults yet, but they are capable of operating on their own. Something their parents may rely on if necessary.

There’s a continuity here: as the child ages, they’re going to be able to take on more responsibility, be better able to actively participate in events, and they’ll gradually develop more autonomy. The exact age of your characters will determine where they end up, and on a longer timeline of events, that progress will form the core of their arc.

I know Steve Irwin brought his daughter with him (I distinctly remember him and a few others holding an alligator and him asking her to hold down the tip of the tail to help.) Thoughts?

I’m a little hesitant to use real world examples, especially since Steve Irwin did die doing what he loved. However, that anecdote about Bindi Irwin does illustrate what I was talking about a second ago. The alligator isn’t going to eat her with its tail, and he wasn’t asking her to just go grab an unrestrained, predatory reptile.

With that in mind, there’s plenty of stories about kids going off and working with their parents. The Amelia Peabody Mysteries by the late Elizabeth Peters comes to mind, where over the course of the novels, Amelia’s son eventually takes over as the primary narrator. (The books also transition from first person limited to an epistolary format when the in-fiction “author” changes.)

The important thing to remember is what their death means in a larger context to the characters. Killing a character (or “characters,” if it’s a package deal) should always have significant importance on the characters or plot.

This isn’t a, “sanctity of human life,” argument. As the author your job is tell the story, no matter how unpleasant it may be for the characters. The issue is simpler: You don’t want to waste your audience’s time and attention.

As a writer, you’re asking your audience to read your story. You’re asking them to pay attention to each detail. The unspoken promise is that this will somehow improve the experience. It can move the plot forward, it can offer important context, or it can build the texture of the world and its inhabitants.

It can be tempting to simply throw the kitchen sink at your story; you may have a grand idea of a massive world filled with people and their history, but you’re better served culling that down to the important details. There’s a piece of writing advice from Elements of Style, “omit unnecessary words.” Usually, we think about this at a sentence level, but apply it to your writing as a whole. Ask yourself, “does the story need this character?” If the answer is, “no,” you can’t simply kill them off, you need to remove them completely.

A truth about death is, it’s not the end. I don’t mean in some metaphysical sense; death does not end the influence of a person; their absence lingers and the consequences of their actions persist.

If you’re going to kill someone, you need to remember they’re still a part of the story, even after they’re gone.

-Starke

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How effective are using people as human shields. In a lot of shows to protect themselves from getting shot characters pull people in front of them. How realistic is this and does it actually offer some protection from small caliber weapons.

There’s no guarantee that the hostage is going to stop the bullet, the point of holding someone hostage is to stop the other person with a gun from shooting in the first place.

It is, unironically, the exact same reasoning behind holding someone hostage with a knife or any other implement. The idea is that the person trying to stop you will care more about the innocent getting hurt than they will stopping you. Or they will want to get that person to safety before apprehending you, giving you time to potentially maneuver into a better position and/or escape.

It’s worth understanding that taking a hostage is usually an act of desperation. They’re taking a big bet on the morality and/or ethics of the person they’re trying to escape from. They are betting on the value of the hostage, whether that’s personal or political or simply because they’re an innocent.

This is part of why its an act of desperation, the other part is that moving while holding someone else and forcing them to come with you is difficult. The hostage taker is also betting on the hostage’s willingness to be compliant, that they will value their life more than they will attempting to get free or fight. They’re banking on fear, mostly. It’s hard to split your focus on two at once.

Now, hostage taking happens in real life though I honestly have no idea if it occurs with the same frequency we see on television. Television and movies, especially those surrounding cops, are addicted to the hostage narrative. It has become a genre cliche as much as a genre trope at this point. However, it serves as a cheap, fast point of narrative and character development for both the audience and the protagonists.

Hostage taking usually acts a convenient moral and ethical dilemma for the protagonist. This is more true of some shows than others, but its a staple trope in procedural and television dramas involving cops. Often, it’s here to tell us what kind of people these protagonists are and, if there’s more than one to make the choice, where their breakdown is. The good cop will usually try to talk the hostage taker down. The one who threatens them down by being a worse person. The “by any means necessary” risk taker often just shoots through the victim. There are other variants, but that’s the common breakdown.

Compare Law and Order to The Shield or 24 for comparisons in how the protagonists deal with hostages, hostage takers, and even, sometimes, take hostages themselves.

The ethical quandary is the centerpiece of a hostage negotiation. Whether you risk their deaths by acting, whether you try to save them and allow the villain to succeed, what you do when you can’t choose both. Lives are hanging in the balance. The greater good is pitted against the importance of an individual life. Either way, someone will die.

It’s great drama.

If you want to a fun fictional glimpse into the minds behind a hostage negotiation, working from procedure, then I recommend watching The Negotiator with Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey. The plot of the movie is Jackson’s character, a hostage negotiator being framed for murder and he tries to clear his name by… taking people hostage.

If you ever want to try your hand writing a professional in a hostage negotiation or just talking someone down, then this movie is a must see.

Burn Notice has some great episodes regarding this topic as well, offers up some information on the thought processes of those taking the hostages in various scenarios from bank heists to professional kidnapping, which will be helpful.

Television doesn’t do it because it’s a smart choice, because taking a hostage is never, really a smart choice. When someone has taken a hostage, it’s usually because they’re backed into a corner and are trying to bargain for an escape hatch. They’re betting on the fact that they’re willing to go further, faster, harder than whomever they’re trying to escape from. It’s a time buy, an attention getter, and a negotiation whether they actually intend to kill their victim or not. Outside of just human shields, the hostages often do die. Television plays this sequence for the drama.

When they really want to up the ante, they have the hero’s girlfriend, boyfriend, wife end up in the hands of the villains either as a human shield or on the other end of the line. That’s when it gets personal. Die Hard plays this one like a violin. The Chicago cop trying to stop terrorists who have taken the building hostage, while his estranged wife is one of the victims and constantly in danger of discovery.

The trick to making a hostage situation, whether its a human shield or people trapped on the 100th floor is to ensure the hostages are characters rather than moveable objects. They need personalities, agency, opinions so the audience has a reason to connect and relate to them. They don’t necessarily have to fight back, but its important for the author to recognize their importance as minor characters because a successful scene hinges on them rather than the major actors.

In fiction, the audience always needs a reason to care. Death or threat of death isn’t enough to create tragedy. If your audience isn’t following along with your hostage and facing the same moral dilemma as the hero, then the impact of the outcome will be lessened.

If you want to know why scenes like this fail, why death scenes in fiction fail, then understand its a failure to make use of the supporting pieces. Whether its a big death or a small death, a major or minor victory, those supporting characters need to get used. If you don’t put any effort into developing them before their untimely demise, then death is meaningless. We can hate them, love them, want to strangle them, but we do need to feel something.

-Michi

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We’re All in the Fridge

In light of recent television events, especially what happened this
Wednesday, let’s talk about Women (and Men) in Refrigerators.

The
term “Women in Refrigerators” and subsequent tropes was coined by comic
writer Gail Simone (@GailSimone) in 1999. It was specifically about a
panel in a Green Lantern comic when then Green Lantern Kyle Rainer
returned to find his girlfriend had been killed by one of his nemeses
while he was offworld and he returned to find her body stuffed into a
refrigerator. Gail coined this term as a way to point out a lazy trend
in the comic’s industry where the hero’s girlfriend is killed for shock
value and whose death serves as a means of motivating them. Aka making
their death all about Character X and turning the other character into a
prop. Despite the term, “Women in Refrigerators” can actually be
anyone, male or female (though more commonly female, and even more
commonly a love interest) who is killed to further the story of another
character.

Even as they die, their death is not about them. It is
about the hero, be they male or female, that they are dying for. Their
death is the ultimate disservice to them as a character, reduces them to
being a prop to further the narrative’s goals, and is almost purely for
shock value. Let me be frank, it’s a cheap gimmick on the part of the
writer(s). Where they ask the audience to sympathize not with the
character who has died, but with the character who has suffered the
loss. They make Character B’s death all about Character A. Even in their
final moments, they are usually concerned only about the other
character. Often this constitutes the worst excess in misogyny and
chauvinism as culturally women are expected to sacrifice everything
including for the men in their lives.

Let’s shorten it up.

A woman in a refrigerator is one who:

  • Dies for shock value

  • Whose death is used to motivate the hero

  • Whose death is rarely heroic, but rather shocking and gruesome.

  • Who the narrative places no focus on, even when they die

  • Commonly resulting in the Death of the Hypotenuse because the author murdered their way out a love triangle.

Basically, if your heroine says something along the lines
of: “I’ve always loved you, Character A, but I know you’re in love with
Character C and I just want you to be happy!” as her last words on her
deathbed instead of focusing on the more important parts of her life and
the other people she cares about then you’ve probably got a Fridging.
When you’re using the death to prop someone else, you’ve got a fridging.
When you’re treating your female characters as disposable props, you’ve
definitely got a fridging.

A fridging happens when you make a death all about someone who didn’t die and their character development.

If
you hate the term “fridging” then you should because it is exceedingly
common and the trope results in some of the trashiest and most offensive
fiction writing. It’s right up there with “Bury Your Gays”. In fact,
they share similar shelf spacing in terms of intent. Both treat the
dying characters as disposable and use their deaths rather than their
lives as a means of promoting a narrative about the other class.

“It
was only after his gay son was dead that Frank realized the extent of
his own homophobia and valued his son’s existence, leading him to
change.”

“In the death of long time ex-girlfriend, superhero Roly
King finally received the blessing to pursue the hot tech genius
secretary that he’d wanted all along.”

“In the death of his wife
at the hands of his nemesis, ex-psychopathic mass murder Felix decided
to pick up the knife and return to a life of murdering the murderers.”

Your
story is promoting the idea that the only way these characters have
worth is in A) Memory and B) Someone else’s pain. They do not have any
value unless they’re dead. They can only be valuable in the memory of
others and what they push them to do.

It’s disgusting,
disrespectful, and ultimately heartbreaking in ways that have nothing to
do with the story being told. It continues to play into the narrative
that if you are a minority then you must sacrifice yourself for the
majority who care nothing for you and only your death, not your life,
matters. In life, you are degraded. In death, a hero quickly forgotten.

“Why do I have to die so you can learn your lesson?”

And
don’t kid yourselves, guys. For purposes of storytelling, this trope is
an incredibly attractive one and as soon as we all decide we can’t fall
prey to it then that is the moment we will. Part of being a writer is
recognizing what you’re telling, to control the flow as it controls you.
You get to decide how a character dies, what you choose to focus on,
and what will be remembered. It’s not that death is inherently bad, it’s
not that you can’t kill off women or minorities in your fiction.

It’s how they die that matters, it’s the way you set up their death, and it’s the death you choose to give them.

There are no rules.

So, how do you avoid the Fridge?

Avoiding
the Fridge is actually remarkably easy but it’s also difficult because
it requires time, attention to detail, set up, and a willingness to
stick to your guns. Ultimately, the best deaths are the ones that the
author earns. They structure the subplot around it, they lead up to it,
they tell it very carefully, and they open the trap door in such a way
that’s worthy of the character they’re sending off. This is especially
true if it’s a main character.

A good death is one that you build
toward, even when it seems surprising. Believe it or not, a good death
is actually narratively satisfying. You conclude their story. It feels
good and not because certain subsets of your audience hated the
character and wanted them gone or because you no longer had a use for
them so they could be sacrificed. It’s a conclusion and, unlike in real
life, a good one satisfies.

You’ll hear the arguments from fans that “it’s death, it’s not supposed to feel good.”

That’s
real life. In real life, death is often sudden and unfinished. It
leaves us stunned, angry, and wanting more. It feels unfair. We’re angry
because someone bright and beautiful has been lost to us. There is no
going back. They’re gone and they’re gone forever.

While art often
imitates life when it comes to fiction, death is actually cathartic. It
carries with it a sense of completion. It can have everything initially
that the above real life represents, but in the end it satisfies. It’s
supposed to. This is why tragedies are ultimately emotionally satisfying
in their conclusions. They’re sad, but we know they couldn’t have ended
any other way. The story has built towards that, it fulfills its
promises made to the audience and the character. You knew it was a
tragedy and you understand why it ends the way it does. (And if you’re
wanting someone to die because you think they’re a villain and they
deserve it or they’re standing in the way of a ship, I’m sorry. That’s
petty. That’s on you. That’s not what I’m talking about in terms of good
storytelling.)

Grief itself is entirely selfish.

The moment of death? That’s all about them.

Good deaths take work. Fridging is lazy storytelling.

Be the former, not the latter.

Tell good stories.

-Michi

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Then why do I still have to remind myself that she’s gone? Why when I see something interesting on the news, I’ll say to myself : “Oh, I gotta remember to mention this to Anna later on.” Sometimes I will turn to say something to her, she’s not there but just for a second, I don’t know why she’s not there. And then I remember. I miss her, Liz. I miss her and love her as much right now as I did when she was still here

John Sheridan, Babylon 5 202