The Art of Dying: How and How Not to Kill a Character

I used to read a lot as a kid, and as a teen especially. It’s only recently that movies and TV have almost completely usurped my reading time, which is unfortunate. I had read a lot of dystopian fiction specifically, as a teen does. One book in particular that I enjoyed was The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey. No, I did not see the movie adaptation due to the high risk of me imploding in anger like I did with the Death Note abomination they put on Netflix. What I remember even more fondly, however, is its sequel, The Infinite Sea. Well, that’s not entirely true. I remember enjoying it a whole lot, but only one scene has stuck in my mind to this day, a scene that will set the bar high for the characters we’re going to be discussing. All you need to know is that there’s a fat kid nicknamed Poundcake, named that because when the apocalypse was happening and aliens started to invade, he poached a pound cake and shoved it into his pocket, and has been saving it for the entirety of the series up until now. In our scene, shit has hit the fan, and one of the super strong aliens is about to reach our main characters. Poundcake is the only thing standing between the alien and our protags, and despite being a chubby little dude, he pulls off the most badass thing ever: With the evil alien taunting the kid, he pulls the pin on a grenade he’s been hiding, takes a nice big chomp of his cake, and brings the whole place down, the alien and himself included. His last minute heroics and sacrifice give the protags just enough time to get away alive.

When I think of earned character deaths, I always think of Poundcake. Never before had I felt so satisfied with a character’s arc. I recommend reading the books to fully get what I’m saying, because it’s tough to describe an entire character arc from a book I read five years ago. He seems like some cowardly boy who just got lucky enough to survive the initial attack, when in reality, it’s his bravery and loyalty that defines him. If ever there were a fictional character to be in Valhalla, it’s Poundcake. Yancey constructed the perfect way for a character to go from somewhat pathetic to absolutely legendary, and have it all make sense in the context, making it one of the most memorable character deaths in any media.

Some of the characters we’re gonna be talking about today are the exact opposite of this: shock value deaths. These are the antithesis of the earned, noble death, the deaths that are meant to revive a waning audience rather than to be looked back on as, well, something to look back on. We’re talking Star Wars, we’re talking The Walking Dead (the game, not the show or the comics), The Hateful Eight, and Bioshock. Oh, and some very recent Westworld. People die in this post, so be careful. That’s my way of saying spoiler warning, by the way, if that wasn’t clear. 

Let’s start off by comparing my only two movie picks on the docket. Our characters here are General Sandy Smithers of the Hateful Eight, and Snoke of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Smithers, a nasty Civil War vet – on the confederate side – has a death that caps off the first half of the movie, right before intermission. Yes, there’s an intermission. Tarantino can do that, but only because he’s Tarantino. Our protagonist, Marquis Warren, has been antagonizing him the entire time, much to the audience’s amusement, while the alleged Sheriff of the nearby Red Rock defends the old racist geezer. The Sheriff anticipates what Marquis is doing, but is helpless to stop it: Marquis verbally abuses and demeans the old man to the point where Smithers draws his gun, justifying Marquis’ bullet through his chest. What really makes the scene, however, is the story Marquis tells to get the vet so riled up. The lengthy and explicit tale depicts the relationship between Smithers’ son and Marquis himself. To make a long story short, the son is forced to walk miles in the freezing cold, naked as can be, and finally Marquis offers him a blanket if Smithers Jr. will suck his dick. He obliges, but no blanket was provided that day. That event lead not only Smithers Jr. to his death, but his own father as well, in some kind of sick poetic justice. This despicable but frail and aging character meets his demise in such a humiliating way, it’s impossible to think of a better scene to end the first half of a great movie on.

Now Snoke, another geezer with a heart of trash, is a completely different story. Though presented with much more dignity than Warren, he goes out with much less. Snoke was introduced as the malicious new villain of the trilogy, a force working behind the scenes to make sure everything goes wrong for our heroes. In fact, he doesn’t even show up in person throughout Episode 7, making him all the more mysterious and interesting. Episode 8 seems to establish him as the main baddie of the film, and I was all for it. He has a cool design, an understandable yet diabolical motivation, and power that extends across the galaxy. And so here we have Rey facing off against this giant, hideous monster, a bit further than halfway through the movie. Surely this is where Snoke makes good on his intentions. Surely this is where Snoke cements himself in the annals of Star Wars history. Surely something cool will happen, at the very least. But alas, the writing is piss poor. Snoke is undone by his apprentice, Ben. Now don’t get me wrong: this could have been well done, but only if literally anything but what happened, happened. Say Kylo takes his place, commands his army, and rules them according to his own rules with an iron fist. Say Rey and Kylo see eye to eye and dismantle his army, creating a civil war within the ranks. Say Rey and Kylo remain enemies, and are too caught up in their mutual hatred that they fail to see that killing Snoke doesn’t solve all that much. But unfortunately, we got what we got, and Snoke died for nothing. What could have been a drastic turning point for the characters and the entire series just became another event to give Kylo something to whine about, and for Rey to continue to reject any kind of character growth and development. He died for shock value rather than to further the other characters, and I believe that is what’s confusing people into liking The Last Jedi. The fact that Snoke dying is a twist doesn’t automatically make it interesting. Something has to change as a result; it has to have lead up before and a ripple effect after, especially for a character this built up. Rian Johnson fails as a storyteller here, and on many other occasions I won’t even get into, whereas Tarantino continues to excel at creating riveting characters put in precarious and real situations, with results that truly change the course of the film.

I have a friend, let’s call him Sam. Because that’s his actual name. Ever since season 1 of The Walking Dead: A Telltale Series came out in 2012, we have been arguing about Kenny. Now, this is a video game so I’m sure many of you aren’t too familiar, but I’m still gonna assume you’ve experienced it. If you haven’t, I dunno, watch it all on youtube or read a Wikipedia summary, or better yet, play it. It’s pretty fantastic. In season 1, Kenny is a secondary character, accompanying Clementine and Lee on their journey to Savannah. He makes mistakes, that’s for sure, but I love him despite his flaws. Sam, on the other hand, despises the man; he blames Kenny for every bad thing that happens, especially come season 2. For me, Kenny has always been my favourite character: he’s a hothead, absolutely, but he does what he must to keep those he loves safe. The one thing Sam and I can agree on is that he is a well written character. I mean, how often is there a character in any media that can have one person adoring them and another despising them, both with valid points? This dichotomy is even accentuated at the end of season 2, in which I chose for Clementine to stay with Kenny even if it meant leaving the fabled Wellington behind, while he chose for Clem to go off on her own, to fend for herself and AJ. Up until this point, the storytelling is good at worst. Some aren’t the biggest fans of the second season, but I think it is more than a sufficient follow-up to one of the best narratives in games.

Ok, let’s get on with it Joey, how does Kenny die? Well… he doesn’t. I’m still in denial that the writers actually killed off Kenny in a ludicrously brief flashback in the middle of episode 1, season 3, in which he’s teaching Clem to drive. She swerves and sends him flying to his death. No, that really can’t be what happened, I will not believe it. My favourite character was killed as if he were some minor side character like Omid and Christa at the start of season 2, but even they had some gravitas to their deaths. Kenny is killed not by some fatal flaw, not by the horrors of the world, but by shitty writing. By lazy writing. By downright fucking evil, sadistic writing, written to piss me off specifically. Not only is there no buildup, you don’t even get the chance to see how Kenny has changed between seasons. Has he become a better, more calm person? Has he gotten over the deaths of those he loved? Has he been able to take on the role of father figure for Clem? Who the hell knows. You know what, I think you get the point, this is upsetting me too much. Let’s move on to something good.

Bioshock scared me as a kid. They had those commercials with the creepy little girls, and I even went as far as to turn off the TV when they aired. Who knew I’d actually end up enjoying it so much? Bioshock is a masterpiece of storytelling, one that combines in media narrative with meta narrative seamlessly, coming to a head with the self inflicted death of Andrew Ryan. Ryan is the first character you meet as you descend towards the failed utopia of Rapture, and he sets the stage perfectly with a truly genius monologue that I have memorized to the letter, and suggest you look up a video of, not only for the speech, but to get a sense of Rapture itself. The entire game you play as Jack, a silent protagonist whose plane just “happened” to crash right next to the lighthouse that transports you down to the isolated city below the sea. Immediately you are greeted by Atlas, a mysterious yet friendly presence on your makeshift 50s style walkie-talkie. He guides you around, giving you tips and telling you to save his family, and while you’re at it, “find Andrew Ryan and kill the son of a bitch.” His kind words make you trust him, and since he’s the one giving you your objectives, you have to trust him to progress. “Would you kindly?” says Atlas to Jack, the player, and you oblige. “Would you kindly?” These innocent words, they make you do things you shouldn’t. “Would you kindly?” Do things that Jack may not want to do, but the player does. The player has to, otherwise they cannot win. And what is a game without winning? “A man chooses, a slave obeys,” says Andrew Ryan as he uses Atlas’ trick to make you kill him, swinging mercilessly at him with his own golf club. “A man chooses, a slave obeys.” We, the player, are the slave Ryan speaks of. We have been blindly following the words of this man we have yet to meet, and only because the arrow on our screen says to. It doesn’t matter whether we want to or not, the arrow says go right, we go right. Go left, we go left. Steal, steal. Murder, murder. As much as we like to think we have choice in video games, Bioshock brings to light the fact that you don’t, you never do. And that is not only the genius of Andrew Ryan’s death, it is the genius of Bioshock.

No other medium has the potential to portray this kind of commentary. If you’ve played Bioshock, you’ve likely played games before. Take Call of Duty, in which you shoot all the dudes in the room, rinse, repeat. You know the general gameplay loop of the first person shooter genre, you clear out an area, you look for goodies to consume or hoard, and you move on to where the next objective is. Games have conditioned you to follow this arrow, this map marker, whatever the game employs, and never asks you to question it. Bioshock forces you to not only rethink your “choices” within the game, but the way you play any other game like it. Ryan’s death means you have no choice, and the horrors that go along with this idea of a fate determined by someone else. Atlas, yes, but also the developers of the game. They have you do whatever they want, all because of the context of being a video game. Ryan, in this analogy, represents the idea that you ever had a choice. You killing him is the only way he can truly show that you are a puppet, that you are not playing a game, you are being played. This is one of the most unique deaths in any medium, and it’s really tough to compare it to anything. It’s so much more than a character death, since it recontextualizes not only the game itself, but the entire genre. Bioshock is and always will be the model for video game writing. Not that it should be copied, but video games have an extremely special position in which you are interacting with it directly rather than just watching it. This opportunity should be taken advantage of more, and I love to see games like Nier: Automata do it, or even Pony Island (trust me, it’s less innocent than you think).

Before we conclude, I’d like to briefly mention one final example of death done wrong: Westworld. This week’s episode (season 2, episode 9) is pretty much the nail in the coffin of a series that was at one point so good and entertaining, and became an absolute mess. I won’t get into it too much, but I just want to reiterate how much I hate shock deaths. These are deaths that are there for the sole purpose of making an audience gasp, making them discuss on forums online, make them believe the writers did it for a reason when they really either a) don’t know what the fuck they’re doing or b) need the ratings. Westworld falls soundly into the a) camp. I have pretty much no confidence in the writing at this point, because now that Westworld has true stakes, the writers are lost. They now have characters that die when they are killed, and instead of that adding an interesting level of tension (which it actually did at the start of the season), it just makes the characters act stupider. Teddy killing himself and William killing his daughter are the same. They have far too little buildup, and I have a sinking feeling that despite the emotional trauma William and Dolores should go through now, they’re going to end up forgetting this whole debacle next episode, and continue on their respective missions. And at the risk of getting too off track, what the hell is William’s mission at this point? Someone please explain it to me, I don’t care enough to figure it out myself.

So what have we learned today, class? Well, we learned that most of all, you need to build up to a character death. None of this shock shit, get it outta my face. And flaccid deaths like Kenny’s, well, there’s a place in hell for those. We also learned that mediums can and should be taken advantage of in creative ways, and I respect any effort to do so. How do you write a good character death, you ask? Start by asking yourself if you think a character dying will make the surrounding ones more interesting. It’s crucial that the death means something to characters other than the one being offed. Next, have it make sense. I don’t mean have it make sense to the plot, that’s obvious. I mean have it seem natural that this happens. It can be surprising, but when I look back on it, I want to see what choices lead the character to their death, instead of it being completely out of the blue. I want to react with an “Oooh shit they went there!” not a “What the fuck?!” All right, class is over, get outta here you scoundrels. And don’t forget, homework tonight is to kill someone, but have it make contextual sense!

P.S. I was going to do a part 2 in which I discuss Dexter and Game of Thrones, and how each has examples of both good and bad deaths. But then I realised this post is already ludicrously long, so I’ll leave it up to y’all. Let me know If you want a part 2, and I will deliver, as always.


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