Constructed Worlds vs Civil Rights Metaphors

This post is basically a re-run of a post that I wrote two years ago.  The ideas are all the same.  But Detroit: Beyond Human came out and got all high profile while committing the grave and fatal sin of pressing my pet peeve buttons, so here we are again.  Let’s talk.

I think we can all agree that racism, sexism, all those -isms are horrible things.  Sure, we can come to a whole host of interpretations on what sort of behavior falls under those banners, where the lines are, how much of an impact they have in modern society and how much they should have, what needs to change to get there, and why we’ve let stupid assholes control the discourse on all sides of these matters, but beyond all the battle lines there, I think we can agree that these are bad things.

Lots of creators are moved by this, and want to write about it.  That’s a good thing.  A fair amount of how many people interpret their world comes through the media they consume, and this opens the door to exploration of it.  Lots of creators also like to write about robots and elves and constructed worlds and all sorts of exotic and unrealistic places and people.  That’s also a good thing.  Take us all outside this meatspace shell where everyone has their stresses and their troubles and has to deal with the fact that they will never look as good as I do.  Some creators like to put those two together, and write about the prejudice that their completely different and unusual people face in this world.  That’s also a good thing.  At the very least, explore how rights and social structures and whatnot work in that world, perhaps also getting people to see the mundane matter from a new perspective.  All good so far.

But then some creators take things a step further than that.  They take their constructed race, and try to tie it with the historic civil rights issues faced by some other targeted class of people.  And that’s where it stops being a good thing.  Because in so doing, they undermine the entire point they think that makes, and do a disservice to the whole movement against those issues.

The big, bad thing that so central and horrible about all those isms is that they ascribe a treatment to and a mentality against a people based on mostly immaterial differences.  A person’s race, gender, sexuality, beliefs, etc. has next to no impact on the vast majority of the interactions a person has with the world, and treating them differently according to these factors is injecting a whole host of problems into their lives based on nothing more than your own stupid ideas.  That’s the crux of it.

But a most of these constructed peoples that are used as allegories for real world issues?  They do have demonstrable, practical differences from the rest of the people.  In games, maybe they have different stats.  Or access to different unique abilities.  In stories, maybe they have different physical or intellectual capabilities.  Maybe they’re connected to different living gods or magical hiveminds.  Or maybe they’re robots, and nobody has reason to believe they’re sentient beings.  Whatever.  But they have material differences that go beyond surface level.

Again, that’s fine.  You can still make a lot of points about prejudice when talking about them.  You can make a lot of good, compelling points.  The prejudice against them may still be horrible.  That’s fine.  But by trying to use them as a metaphor for real world prejudice, you’re tying a prejudice that’s grounded in some material difference to a prejudice that’s completely ungrounded, and that weakens everything involved drastically.

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The X-Men probably present the biggest example of the problem here.  So, for a refresher, the X-Men and the other associated titles are about mutants, a race of humans who by a quirk of genetics have powers that they often can’t control and, at least going by the named characters in the series, are generally geared towards combat.   Central conflicts regularly center around the abundant anti-mutant sentiment in this world.  For years, the series called back to the civil rights struggles of its time, but twisted them in a way that was specific for their world.  That was all fine.  They used the real-world stuff to inject realism and explore prejudice, but the mutants weren’t equated with any real group, weren’t intertwined with any real world cause.  This meant all this exploration could happen without undermining any real world groups of people.

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But slowly, that line started to erode.  And the mutants started being obviously equated with real groups.  First with the black rights movements, then drifting over to the sexual equality issue as time went on.  Direct parallels between them were drawn, to try and make that connection clear.  The struggles faced by our beloved X-Men were equivalent to the struggles faced by these other people out there.

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What’s the problem with that, exactly?  It helps people make the connection when they’d normally be barred by their preconceptions, right?  Not so much.  See, there’s a bit too much difference between them.  Specifically, mutants?  When they find out about their powers?  They often do so explosively.  Examples abound in the mutant materials of kids hitting puberty and accidentally killing a whole bunch of people.  Some mutants still can’t control their powers, and do a whole bunch of harm on accident.  Even those who can still misuse their special abilities to the detriment of the mundane people around them.  Yes, even the good guys.  And that’s avoiding the whole issues of evil mutants, entirely, of the fact that there are people out there who can wipe whole countries off the map with a thought and that the only means of stopping them are in the hands of an uncontrolled military force.  So… yeah.  There’s a lot more to justify prejudiced views against mutants than there are against the real world groups creators try to equate them to.  Doesn’t mean those prejudiced views aren’t horrible in result, but they’re a lot more grounded.  Trying to say they’re the equivalent to the ungrounded prejudice real world groups face undermines those groups.  Hell, what’s presented as bigotry in the X-verse has a lot more in common with the gun control debate than it does with civil rights, and writers end up making a very different point than they’re intending to about that.

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So what’s the issue with Detroit: Become Human?  They try to make a similar point about the horribleness of prejudice against androids.  To be honest, I don’t know enough of the material to talk about how it’s handled yet.  But what really grinds my gears, is the connections they try to draw to the real world.  The androids’ uniforms, the arm-bands, the ubiquitous triangles, all draw iconography from the way Nazi Germany forced its ‘undesirables’ to dress in real world history.  The racism and classism there should go without saying.  The horrors against humanity there would be absolutely galling for any reason, but they were still based on a bunch of largely imaginary differences between peoples.  The implication that that is equivalent to the struggles of a people for whom the differences are concrete and the general public seemingly has no reason to believe the androids are even sentient of is… well, it’s frustrating to me.  Now, given my lack of knowledge of the material, it’s possible that they develop that.  Turn that connection into something more meaningful than it appears at first glance.  But given the cartoon caliber characterization of its early scenes, I’m not counting on that.

So yeah, that’s my bit.  This isn’t a great horror of modern writing, or even a big deliberate disrespect to the struggles of survivors.  Just a pet peeve of mine, but one I’d love to see be handled a lot more smartly in the future.

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Deus Ex Spoke To Me

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Stories are subjective.  Sure, a lot of the internet will tell you otherwise.  Spend enough time online, it seems you start thinking that an opinion can only be valid when you get everyone else in the world to hold it.  By force.  I cannot tell you the amount of people I have seen flamed into oblivion because they praised/criticized the story of Final Fantasy VII in the wrong place.  But these people miss out on a whole lot of the good in stories.  They’re subjective.  They speak to different people in different ways.  And that’s awesome.

That does mean that somebody, somewhere, is going to enjoy some bad writing.  Something that may have been slapped together on a napkin that some writer accidentally spilled his eighth drink on could end up truly resonating with a reader.  It gets the fanboys up in arms, that OMG someone enjoys something they don’t, but aside from them, it’s a really beautiful thing.

I had that happen to me recently.  Deus Ex is a game with a lot of strengths.  The plot is not one of them.  Which might be a little unfair; I didn’t get the chance to play this game until the medium had gone through over a decade of advancement since, but still, from my perspective, it was a great game, but the story was pants.  It might be too far to call it bad, but it was lacking.  And, at first, it seemed the part that the writing was sloppiest was in the ending.  Specifically, the way the game handled the choice of three endings.

You see that?  I said ‘endings’.  That means spoilers ahead.

So there I was, hunting down the last of the evil spinoff of the group that would be the evil villains in many other stories, tracking them down because the main baddie kept taunting me even though I already dropped a nuke on them because apparently ruling the world requires a significant lack of judgement.  When all of a sudden, I became Mr. Popular.  Everyone started talking to me, using the communication hubs that had absolutely no reason to be there otherwise, wanting to switch me to their side because all of a sudden this whole peacekeeping mission now had me deciding the fate of the world with absolutely no buildup.  And all the options presented to me?  They came with some pretty serious downsides, and there was no way of blazing your own path through it.  The people who had secretly been running the world in spite of the fact that every single member we saw was completely ineffective and I knew them to be a bunch of clowns because I played Human Revolution first wanted me to create a power vacuum then join them in filling it once more, ruling the earth from the shadows for our own benefit.  The only people I really owed a favor to wanted me to destroy all the earths capabilities for long distance communications and plunge the economy back into the middle ages because obviously people can’t just lay cable for the internet again.  The AI spying on everyone and hacking everything wanted me to merge with it, to create a benevolent ruler with absolute power, because apparently my penchant for cattle prodding people in the genitals until they passed out, trapping people in enclosed spaces and smoking around them until they died, and breaking into every locked door I came across in an attempt to build up the world’s largest candy bar collection makes me the world’s best moral compass.

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Anyways, the problem I had here was that the choices seemed unreasonable, the people giving them weren’t exactly nuanced, they didn’t take into account my past actions after a game that had been doing that really beautifully throughout, and the way they were delivered, mostly out of the clear blue, left me a bit bitter about the option.  But then, something miraculous happened.  Turns out, I am really, really bad at health.  Who knew!  A lifetime of being tall and beautiful had trained me to seek out people’s attention, making me really bad at actually avoiding it when I had to.  Is this what it’s like to be normal-looking?  Man, I feel sorry for the rest of the world.  Anyways, this turned out to be a bit of a blessing, as the constant save-scumming I had to go through gave me time to think.  And that time to think ended up making me appreciate the endings a lot more.  By the time I got to the guy who laid all the consequences out for me, I had already started looking at the endings on a whole different level.

What really changes the way I viewed the ending was the time I was given to reflect on the state of the world as it was.  The three options you were given were all ruinous, but set against the backdrop of a world where Soylent Green would be panned for being too realistic, where the government pays people to commit suicide, where the United States walls off its slums and high crime areas, leaving them to devour themselves with no Batman to save them, where corruption exists at literally every level of government we see except for China, of all places, every single one of those options, horrid though they were, were far better than the status quo.  The options themselves, digging past the surface level, asked you to weigh values against each other.  Is it worth it to sacrifice individual freedom the world over if you can keep people safe?  Does it matter that people are being controlled from the shadows, that they are locked into invisible gridlines, if it allows many to prosper?  Is individual freedom valuable enough to set society back decades and replace it with chaos world-wide?

I still don’t appreciate the way they were presented, and the framing around them.  The options did not come about it a well-written manner.  They do really speak to me, though, and caused me to think about the values I held.  In the end, I went for the chaos route, setting my people free at the cost of large government, business, and economy as a whole.  Personal freedom is very important to me, and that feels by far the most right choice.  Others will think differently, and that’s an awesome thing.  In any case, the game, for all the creativity and fun it offers, was not very well-written, but the endings triggered that same part of me that attempts to thematically analyze the Saints Row series, as wild and slapstick as they are.  I don’t believe they’d do the same to everybody.  But the ending choices, and the nuance behind them, rose above the rest and truly spoke to me, transforming them in my eyes into something far greater than anyone else may believe.

Freytag’s Pyramid vs. Non-endings in Storytelling

Man, Frank R. Stockton was such a punk.

So, there’s a lot of bad endings in the world of stories.  I’m not talking about downer endings, those can actually be quite good no matter how sad they may be.  I’m talking about those blatant sequel hooks, rushed finales, story threads you’ve been waiting for the conclusion on that never finish up, works that just skip the denouement entirely, and the like.  Narrative tricks that stop the story without finishing it.  Non-endings.  Non-endings have been around for quite a while.  Longer than you or I.  Frank R. Stockton punking it up all over the 19th century is proof enough for that.  It seems they’ve been getting more and more frequent in the modern age, though, as pretty much every writing industry gets more competitive, as serial fiction gets more popular, as more creators either get lazy or try to leave things open for the follow up.  It’s easy to see why.  Endings are really, really hard in the first place.  Keeping track of all the myriad threads you’ve opened up?  That’s for nerds!  And hey, if you set things up so that people have to keep with your story beyond the initial work in order to get a satisfactory conclusion?  Who cares if it’s manipulative as all hell!  There’s dollars/ego at stake!

Yeah, so non-endings abound, they’re getting more pervasive, and a lot of authors seem really, really attached to them.  They also make all of your stories worse, though.  And I’ve got the science, in the form of pretty line graphs and century old literary theories, to prove it.  And you can’t doubt any of it.  I got my Bachelor of Science degree.  See, “Science”.  It’s right in the name.

Anyways, once upon a time there was this guy called Gustav Freytag, better known to modern literary historians as the Frey-Dawg.  The Frey-Dawg was a novelist and playwright who wrote some things you’ve probably never heard of unless you’re European or something, but he moonlighted as a literary critic because nothing picks up women in the 1800’s like talking smack about Shakespeare that they’ll never understand.  Remember than in case you ever get your hands on a time machine.  It was in the latter field that the Frey-Dawg truly made his mark on history.  Check this out.

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This is Frey-Dawg’s Pyramid.  Also known as Freytag’s Pyramid or Dramatic Structure because your English teacher had all the personality of a brick wall.  This showcases what is just about the most basic plot structure you can have and still have a story anybody’s going to want to read.  That line could represent a lot of things, like tension, pace, reader’s interest, the amount of changes being made, whatever.  You could argue about that for years, and it really doesn’t matter.  It’s something you feel mostly by impulse, what specifically it is doesn’t make a difference.  Basically, this plot structure sees your hero kicking it in his crib at the start, spends a bit of time showing you the base level of what the story-world is, before shaking it all up with the Inciting Incident.  Said Inciting Incident starts up the rising action, with the hero progressing through the plot and leading up to the big “Luke, I Am Your Father” moment at the climax.  After the climax, the story stops introducing new elements and focuses on wrapping up the threads it does have, the mysteries have been uncovered, the hero is whaling on the bad guy, that sort of thing.  Then there’s no more to do, and you hit the denouement, where all the happily ever after happens, and the story sets the stage for the life you’ll assume the characters and world will have after you put the book down.

The Frey-Dawg built this pyramid strictly with five-act Greek and Shakesperian dramas in mind, but you can actually fit most stories ever since mankind was hanging around in caves telling tales of rocks mating into something approaching this mold.  Not only is this such a basic measure of storytelling, this also outlines what are usually the minimum requirements to tell what most readers will consider to be a ‘complete’ story.  This is generally what it takes to satisfy readers.  This is the structure that most simply fills the needs of storytelling.

Of course, tastes in narratives change over time.  While this structure fit a lot, possibly even most, of stories up through the early 1900s, most modern authors and readers alike prefer something considerably more complicated.  Modern storytelling tends to extend the rising action greatly, pushing the climax back into the endgame, and adding in a lot of mini-climaxes or complications on the way there.  Both the exposition and the denouement tend to be shorter, establishing the baseline and wrapping things up a lot faster compared to the time spent on the main thrust of the plot.  You have little bits of falling action interspersed among the rising action, then the main fall happens over a lot less time than Shakespeare would give it.  So, for an example of how Frey-Dawg would work that structure around a modern story, here’s the pyramid for an absolute masterpiece I just spent the last five minutes thinking up.  Man, I’m awesome.

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Don’t get too stunned by how amazing I am.  We still have some talking to do.  So, the important part, at least for our discussion today, is at the end there, the bit starting right after the climax.  Even in modern-day stories, where the post-climax period is a lot shorter, our stories still have a period where they wind down, then plateau before THE END.  That is vitally important.  That is what you need to have a good, satisfying ending, no matter how happy or sad your conclusion is.

And that is what all these various non-endings fail at.  Frey-Dawg clearly showed future generations just what it takes, and our storytellers are just stomping all over it.  These endings suck because they fail to take into account the basic needs of a finale, as demonstrated by Frey-Dawg’s Pyramid.

Let’s take a look at exactly how these work out.  There’s three main structures these bad endings tend to fall into.

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Never Trust an Author

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Western culture has an odd fascination with liars. So many people, telling lies so blatant that everyone’s learned not to trust them, yet still we place them at the highest echelons of our societies. Politicians, corporate executives, lawyers, and the like, all very well known as fibbers of the highest order. Yet still we raise them up, largely because of their lies, giving them some of the highest salaries and greatest honors our communities have to offer. They’re some of our culture’s most accomplished false witnesses, some of the most public liars, yet they are far from the most blatant. No, the most devious, the boldest, the most blatant liars take up an occupation that generally gives them a lot less income or prestige, but it’s worth it to them because it affords much more opportunity to lie. Most professions at least have to give off the impression that they’re there for legitimate reasons, but this one, we’ll readily pay them to lie to us. In all of human history, has there been a bigger rat liar than the humble storyteller?

Authors, writers, dramatists, playwrights, that whole blasted trade. They will give us the most obvious lies imaginable and expect us to take them with a smile. These are the people who will just make up a tale from whole cloth then devote themselves completely and utterly to making us believe it could be true. They’ll do their best to convince us, through words, details, and any other tool of their trade, that their imaginary words are real, that their characters exist, that their stories are actually happening, even as you read them. They will do anything they can to immerse you in their lies, to make their words leave the page and overtake your own reality, at least for as long as you’re reading them. These are the mendacious folk who will just spawn a character from their own twisted minds, then make them complex and fleshed out enough that we feel for them just as much as we do those in real life. These are the cruel beings who will use their wicked powers over words to make us feel every twist and turn in the plot as if it was actually happening to us. The author is the malicious mage who draw us into their cold, cruel worlds and personally feel every smile and tear their characters go through. It is they who trick us into making the unreal real in our own minds, in tearing and boosting our emotions with nothing more than their tall, tall tales.

And we love them for it.

The Bookshelf Tag!

We haven’t done one of these viral social blogging posts in a while.  Which seems a little odd to me.  After all, there’s plenty of questions I know people are just dying to ask me.  Questions like “What’s a day in the life of the world’s sexiest man like?” or “What deities do I have to thank for the fact that you’re in my life?” or “How exactly are you supposed to pronounce Aether, anyway?”  Given that I’m still one of the internet’s biggest enigmas, I felt I owed it to the world to respond when our good friend Mishka Jenkins hooked us into the Bookshelf Tag that’s been going around the internet.  Basically, got ten questions here, all about me and books.  And because I basically carved out this corner of the internet for me to do nothing but talk about myself, I’m going to answer these questions.  With words.  And self-indulgence.  Because really, isn’t that what the internet’s all about?

Here we go!

1. Is there a book that you really want to read but haven’t because you know that it’ll make you cry?

Not really.  If a book can make me feel, that’s a beautiful thing.  Even if that feeling is sad.  If a story can break me out of my bitter, mortal shell, and actually feel for the characters to the point that I weep for them, that’s that almost always something worth experiencing.  There’ve been times that I put off sad stories until I was in the mood for them, because I knew they’d make me feel that way, but nothing I avoided outright.  Also, I’m a rock-hard stone-cold hunk of manly manliness who never ever cries.  That part helps too.

2. Pick one book that helped introduce you to a new genre.

‘Stolen Bloodline’ by Mishka Jenkins.  I very rarely dip into the romance genre, but I’ve actually been enjoying the works Mishka’s been putting out since she decided to start making a living as an author.  It’s not just because she and I are close, I’ve honestly been enjoying her works on their own merit.  She mixes up a lot of the fantasy and adventure and conflicts and other stuff I do usually like with some well-written love stories, and it’s made me a lot more open to the romance genre than I was previously

3. Find a book that you want to re-read.

‘The Burning City’, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.  I read it a lot as a kid, and really liked how well-realized and unique the world was, but looking into it more recently I’ve been seeing that there’s a lot of transparent and blatant allegory and imagery that was lost on me in my younger days.  Haven’t read it in years, but I’d love to give it another go to see what my older, better-educated mind might be able to pick up now.

4. Is there a book series you’ve read but wish that you hadn’t?

Nope.  Even bad media has some sort of value.  There’s been stories that have wasted my time, but none that I’m actively worse off for going through.

5. If your house was burning down and all of your family and pets were safe, which book would you go back inside to save?

Well, I’d probably try to save my video games first, but if it had to be a book… well, it’d probably be my collection of the original Elfquest publications.  Those are available for free online now, but the copies I’ve got were part of the first run, back when you had to get a subscription from a small time independent publisher to get your hands on them.  They used to belong to one of my relatives, before being passed down to me, so it’s more sentimental than anything else.  The fact that the story’s really, really good helps the decision.

6. Is there one book on your bookshelf that brings back fond memories?

Any of my Star Wars books.  I used to be crazy into Star Wars as a kid.  ‘Wraith Squadron’ is probably the one I carry the most memories for, to the point that I actually got a bit depressed when its author passed away earlier this year, despite being as jaded as I am.

7. Find a book that has inspired you the most.

Hmm… that’s a tough one.  Terry Goodkind’s early books in the Sword of Truth series, I’d guess.  I don’t particularly like his work nowadays, but those were one of the biggest influences that got me into writing in the first place.

8. Do you have any autographed books?

My copy of the Ocean at the End of the Lane is autographed by Neil Gaiman.

9. Find the book that you have owned the longest.

A copy of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ I’ve had since we put on the play in 6th grade.  I played Oberon.  Unfortunately, my parents were in the habit of selling everything as soon as they thought I was done with it, so I don’t have anything older.  I lost a lot of my childhood, that way.

10. Is there a book by an author that you never imagined you would read or enjoy?

I’m not actually a fan of most classic or older literature.  I find the writing style and plot development to be a bit less nuanced when written before the era where people were studying and educating themselves on these things.  So, I was very surprised when I found myself getting drawn into Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels in such a major way.  The plots are generally just as poorly developed compared to most of its modern counterparts as everything else of the era, but the stories are still really well-written otherwise, and I find myself drawn into them quite easily.

The True Power of Artistic License

Artistic license.  The concept that a good plot is more important than a realistic depiction.  That which an author uses when reality selfishly refuses to accommodate what they need for the plot to work.

I was talking with Harliqueen a while back, when she was in the process of writing what would become Heart of the Arena. At the time, she was greatly concerned about historical accuracy, about making sure all the facts she was implementing to her story conformed as much to historical fact as she could make them. She wanted to ensure that her story stuck as closely to reality as reasonably possible.

At the time, I was struck by that. I’ve been taking the exact opposite approach in my own ongoing work, treating my subject matter with however much flexibility I needed to make the awesome scenes I wanted, and I’d been considering that one of my strengths. And you know what? I still do. Both approaches, that of perfect accuracy and of wanton artistic interpretation, definitely have their merits. It just so happens that the latter is serving my story a lot better.

Even from the outset, I have a lot of room, a necessity even, for utilizing artistic interpretation. While Harli’s tale draws its roots from Roman history, mine bases a lot on mythology and religion, a much softer science. Moreover, I’m drawing from both quite a few different cultural tales and faiths, and taking some inspiration from apocrypha as well, so I really need to implement a lot of ‘creative interpretation’ to ensure my story’s logic can integrate all these sources yet still be consistent. Even beyond that, though, I’ve been thinking that heavy use of artistic license, to the extent I’m looking at with my current work, could be a very beneficial factor in itself.

Basically, what I’m thinking is that a properly applied sense of artistic license can add its own layers onto the work as a whole beyond just what it allows for plot. A good, strong, consistent manner of deviating from what’s established by reality can help to establish an atmosphere and tone for the work on its own, helping it to stand out and creating its own unique. Pretty much any work based in any way on the real world makes use of some degree of artistic license. By being deliberate about it, though, and ensuring its applied consistently throughout, the author can take command of it to help make the work as a whole more unique, having a stronger overall design, and more flexibility in how to implement stories.

There’s a fine line there. Artistic license should only be applied where there’s room for it. That’s one of the reasons I have a lot more flexibility in working with mythology and religion than on other subjects. I’ll already be using a lot of various sources with a lot of internal inconsistencies, where there may not be in something like history. However, every inconsistency is the seed for some sort of interpretation. And by managing those inconsistencies and growing out of them creatively, I’ll be able to make my work a lot stronger than it would be otherwise.

Rules for Writing Death

Life is not fair, least so when it’s coming to an end. So much of human thought and culture focuses around death, it’s no wonder people get so emotionally invested in it, even in simulated form on the page. Character death can be one of the most powerful emotional experiences in a narrative, but because of the emotions involved, it’s also one that has to be handled well and placed appropriately, else you’ll have your readers/viewers rightfully crying foul.

I’ve mentioned this before on the blog; I’m currently working on a graphic novel/comic/whatever as my main creative project. I’ve got a lot of plans for it. One of my plans is to build our main group of heroes up to seventeen people, then have that group whittled around to about seven or eight as the work moves towards its denouement. So yeah, there’s going to be plenty of fallen heroes, and no Plot-Important Character Immunity.

However, as I’ve been planning this out, I’ve been thinking back to some of the other works I’ve gone through, with the characters in similar situations. Specifically, works like A Song of Ice and Fire and The Walking Dead. Works with an excessive amount of character death. Works where not only can anyone die, but most characters will die. And they’re both very strong works in their own right. However, all that death pushes the tone quite a bit darker than I’m wanting to go, and the sheer quantity of it makes most individual cases of characters dying lose a lot of the impact.

There’s a line there. With the story I’m wanting to tell, characters are going to die by necessity, but kill too many, or too darkly, and the work’s going to get dour, the death itself won’t be as strong at driving engagement, and any hypothetical readers are going to be a lot more hesitant to let themselves connect with my characters. I’m going to have to toe the line. Of course, I don’t have any firm idea of where it is.

I decided to put together guidelines for myself. As a mental exercise, and to make my work stronger as I progress, I’d set goals for how I’m going to be treating death in this work. Things that define the how, when, and where death is going to be applied in my narrative. Of course, as with everything in writing, these are flexible, but having them thought out in advance should make my story a lot better than it would be otherwise.

And, of course, if I’m putting in all the work anyways, I might as well make a post out of it, right? Here goes:

Only kill characters when it truly advances the story

If I just want to get a character or group of characters out of the way, there are a lot of ways to do so. Make them get pissed off and leave. Have them be too scared to get involved. Have them taking care of their own business in Timbuktu. Have them retire. Hell, if I need bad things to happen to them, it’s a simple matter to have them be grievously injured, kidnapped, or something of the like.

Death is the narrative equivalent of a big freakin’ sledgehammer. It’s there to shatter, to break down, and to drive spikes into aspects of your narrative. There’s definitely times when a sledgehammer is called for. However, you wouldn’t use a sledgehammer whenever you needed to drive in nails. Likewise, you don’t want to kill off characters every time the opportunity arises.

Knowing myself, I’m sure there’s going to be tempted to kill off characters as a means of managing my large primary cast. After all, the focus can only be on so many things without drawing the pace of the story to a crawl. This is a bad idea for a variety of reasons. For one, these side characters could still be useful. Killing them off removes all utility I could be getting from them in the future. Killing characters indiscriminately is also needlessly manipulating of any readers who may be honestly interested in them. If anyone’s grown attached to them, it’s downright disrespectful to kill those characters off in favor of new, unproven ones. It also wastes any emotional torque such death could bring, in properly designed death scenes.

And really, there’s going to be a lot of situations where it’s just not necessary. I’ve got a story to write about death, my work will be better off just removing them from the situation in a way that leaves them alive. For audiences to take death seriously, it has to be handled respectfully, and throwing it at the wall the first chance I get without properly exploring it is not a sign of respect. Most of the time, it’s going to be both far more appropriate and easier to adequately write to have characters be injured, but survive, to be off on their own quests, or something similar, than to kill them outright.

Death is a conclusion, and should be treated as such

A lot of works do shocking, completely out of nowhere character deaths. A lot of works do them very well. That’s not something I’m really wanting to explore in this piece. I’m going for something strongly character-driven here, and every major death is the end to one of my character’s stories. That means it should be written like an ending. It will need a proper foundation, solid build up, and significant resolution. Essentially, a death scene needs its own individual arc to be handled properly in this piece, one that plays out over much more time than just the scene itself.

This holds the risks of making deaths more predictable. If done write, with death used sparingly, and only when appropriate, I may be able to avoid that, but in any case, and predictable but well-written death is still worlds better than the opposite.

Plot-important deaths are about more than just the character dying

War sucks. People die. Their friend move on, because really, they have to. Everyone’s impacted by death, though. Some more than others. But everyone carries it with them.

I don’t want members of the main cast to just die and never be mentioned again. Deaths will impact the characters close to them for long after the initial event. Some will handle it better than others, some will show it more than others, but everyone is affected. Character death is a massive thing in a narrative, and one of the most commonly-seen mistakes in modern fiction is to kill a major character just for a quick emotional peak and not use it for anything else afterwards. This wastes a lot of the deaths potential, and is disrespectful both to the characters and any reader that’s connected with them. Death always needs to drive further action.

Nobody comes back

This is an idea I’m not entirely attached to yet, because I’ve got a setting where I could easily justify resurrection in certain circumstances, but I’m definitely leaning this way. If you ever want to ruin all emotional impact character death will have, forever, the quickest way is to bring a character back from the dead.

This is a problem that’s really endemic with superhero comics. We’ve had quite a few well-publicized character deaths already, this decade. Captain America, the Human Torch, Batman, just off the top of my head. All of them died. All of their deaths received major publication in mainstream media. All of their followers were totally nonplussed at their deaths. All of them are back now. Those last two things are related. After all, why should your readers take death as final when it’s obvious the writer doesn’t.

So yeah, I’m going to say that unless a death puts my story seriously off track, nobody’s coming back from the grave. I do reserve the right to have characters appear dead, but show up alive and well later, so long as nobody confirms their death and that’s foreshadowed at or around the time of killing.

No deaths purely for meta reasons

Sometimes, you can just feel the writer moving things around in the story. Nowhere is this more commonly apparent than in character death calculated to have an impact on the reader. This is the brand new villain killing the badass character just so the reader believes their super strong. This is the character dying with little build at the start of a new arc so the reader knows it’s a tragic story. This is the undeveloped girlfriend getting killed and shoved into the fridge so the audience audience is totally shocked and decides the hero has to go all grimdark now.

That’s not to say that everything that’s similar to the above is automatically bad. Just that most of the time, when the above situations are written, they’re written solely for their impact on the audience, with their storytelling utility held secondary. It’s outward facing rather than forward facing. Events can and should shock, sadden, instill joy, and otherwise emotionally effect the audience. However, you do need to give your audience some credit; they are absolutely ready and willing to connect with your characters and immerse themselves in your story. The best way to instill an emotional response is to direct events towards your characters, rather than the reader. It’s a subtle difference, but one your reader can easily pick up on. Deaths need to drive your story, not your audience; they’ll easily follow you where you’re going, if it’s well-written enough. But trying to manipulate a response out of them just makes them resist.

So it’s perfectly reasonable to expect readers to respond to my character’s death. But killing characters off just to make the reader respond is both ineffective, as the reader will know and fight against it, and short-sided, as it rarely is well-written enough to drive the story.