Today I’m featuring another guest poster on my blog. In my last entry I invited Doug Strider, an indie Sci-fi author to discuss his work. In that post I introduced Doug by saying that ‘Writing and publishing is not the dog eat dog world you'd think it is. Indie or indie, e-published or paperbound, genre or otherwise, for the most part the 'writing' community stick together - a pack, almost.’ This is true in my experience. So, from an indie Sci-fi author to a upcoming traditionally published fantasy author, I give you the very entertaining Brian Staveley!
…AND STAY DOWN!
I just finished a post on the murder of main characters over at my blog (bstaveley.wordpress.com), and the writing of it got me all riled up about another issue I run across frequently in fantasy (books and movies alike): dead people who aren’t really dead.
One of the great things about fantasy is, of course, that the rules are different: people can fly or shoot lighting out of their asses or turn into walruses (unfortunately, the correct plural is not “walri” – I checked), or what have you. As it turns out, that sometimes means that people can come back from the dead. To my mind, there are several problems here.
First, and most obvious, a central drama of much fantasy revolves around mortality; the relevant stakes are often life and death. It’s worth noting that this need not be the case. In many stories life and death are either irrelevant or secondary considerations. The main stake in Hamlet, for instance, is not his survival, but his revenge. The characters in The Office aren’t generally worried about impending death; they’re concerned with their love lives, the office drama, their reputations, and therefore, so are we.
Fantasy, however, tends to hunt the big game, and one of the major questions we have about the characters we love is: “Will they make it?” Given the centrality of mortality to the genre, writers are taking a dangerous chance when they resurrect people we thought dead. It means the next time a character is in a tight space, we won’t believe that the full gravity of life and death awaits the outcome of the trial. “Enh,” we shrug, “they’ll sprinkle some holy water on her in book two, and she’ll be good as new.”
The second danger involved in bringing characters back to life is the way in which this practice undermines the deaths of those characters who stay dead. Readers mourn the passage of important characters; this is a crucial part of the emotional experience offered by stories. When we’re not sure the characters are dead, however, it’s impossible to mourn. On more than one occasion, I’ve been convinced by the ambiguous nature of a character’s death that she was coming back. Only hundreds of pages later do I realize that, “No, she’s actually gone.” By that point, the edge of the tragedy has dulled.
To be clear, there are a couple of circumstances in which resurrection seems to work.
First, when the ground rules are clear. Plenty of fantasy differentiates between “plain old dead” and “seriously fucking dead.” As Miracle Max from the Princess Bride reminds us, “There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.” In this case, the writer shares the rules with the reader up front. We don’t feel confused and irritated when a character comes back to life, and we understand that there remains a bourne from which no traveler returns. Mortality is still real, annihilation a possible fate. The rules have just been tweaked a little.
Second, there’s the “Question-Mark Death.” In this case, we never actually see the character in question good and dead. The house collapses on them, they fall off the cliff, the ship sinks, but we never actually see the body. I always assume that if I haven’t seen the body the character is still alive. Of course, it’s a disaster to employ the “Question-Mark Death” when you actually have offed the poor bastard. Once again, this denies the reader the opportunity to feel the drama and pathos of the death itself.
I’m not sure that others agree with me on this point, and I’d be curious to hear dissenting views. For example, how do people feel about the “resurrections” in A Song of Ice and Fire? I’m very much on the fence here, as I love those books, and I think George R.R. Martin is up to something slightly different…