One of my favorite scenes from the entire Star Wars franchise (all three films) was the Battle of Hoth. I had an AT-AT when I was a kid, and I’d recreate the scene where Luke figures out how to trip the four-legged machinations with the tow-ropes, bringing down the seemingly invulnerable beasts.
What’s so gripping about the scene isn’t just the cleverness of the tactic, or the long odds the rebels are facing, but the grim reminder of the uprising’s cost. The man who fired the tow rope, Dak Ralter, Like’s copilot, dies when another AT-AT crushes Luke’s snowspeeder.
Tell that to the actor who played Dak, who recently Tweeted to Star Wars writer Gary Whitta that he’s not quite dead yet. This would be quite a bit of rewriting to canon, but it’s already been done in the case of Boba Fett, whose armor supposedly saved him from the sarlacc that gobbled him down in the third and final Star Wars film made (so far). All it takes for a character to be resurrected is to gain popularity, it seems. But what happens when part of that popularity is due to the circumstances of their death? And why are writers and IP holders so loathe to let these characters go?
It drove me nuts as a comic book fan. Not only did Batman (and everyone else) stay roughly the same age for fifty years, but no character was allowed to die. Ever. The entire medium suffers as a result. It becomes a farce. Superman should be dead for good. And that doesn’t mean I don’t like Superman; I just don’t like the emotional castration that comes from learning to never mourn and never worry. These characters are valuable, and so they are unimaginatively immortal.
I see it as laziness as much as anything. Writers and IP holders marvel that they’ve created a character people like and who drives the plot forward, and they seem to worry they’ll never be able to create such a character again. That lack of confidence means clinging to fictional characters long after their story arc has been told. It means recycling the same internal conflicts with zero emotional growth. It means paying homage to all the lessons the character learned, by giving them memories of those conflicts, but no real transcendence, because then we can’t play out the same proven tropes with them over and over. Batman has not yet learned that his brand of capering isn’t helping Gotham, nor that Arkham isn’t the most secure of lock-ups. It’s hard to root for a guy like that. These characters become lifetime politicians with rubbish track records. What we need is change.
George RR Martin has it figured out. He can make you love (or more likely, loathe) a character in two paragraphs or less. Then kill that same character with a single word or a few gory pages. While you’re still recovering from the loss, he’s introduced you to another character you pour your heart into. Sure, it can be as tiring as someone who keeps fruit flies for pets, but it’s emotionally honest. And no one ever read a potential death scene in a Martin work and said, “Oh, she’ll be back.” Or: “He’ll probably make it through this, somehow.”
Oh no he probably won’t.
Even as a kid I was troubled by the pandering. Every Cobra jet GI Joe ever blew up made three white puffs: The smoke from the explosion, and then the inevitable two parachutes that opened after. Here’s a war where no one ever died, ever. Not even copilots. Sure, I wish real wars were like that, but until they are, I wish my fiction reflected real life. Not only to help me feel something powerful as an adult, and allow me to get invested in the characters I encounter, but to prepare me for the heartbreak of the real world. Dak is dead, dammit, no matter what some actor Tweets. And it was a good death. I bet Luke thinks of him often.
I recently wrote a trilogy of short works in the WOOL universe, and I killed off a character at the end that some readers were kinda fond of. For every “I fucking hate you” email and FB message I got, there were dozens that just relayed sadness. Even some who reached out in sympathy. Reached out to me like I needed consoling as well. I loved that. Because these readers knew that we had both lost someone. They must’ve known it wasn’t easy on me either. It never should be. Why would we want it to be?
It should mean something when someone survives, and it only does if there’s a proven alternative. But the real tragedy is that avoiding death costs us more lives than embracing it would. Reading the umpteenth battle between Spiderman and Doc Oc deprives us of a battle between the two unknowns that would take their place. The immortal crowd out the unborn. Not letting Superman stay dead means some incredible character that more reflects the modern age, with shades of gray and complexity of character, is not allowed to rise up and take his place. The audience has a limited amount of emotional empathy to spare. So the real shame is not allowing these heroes to die at the height of their powers, or perhaps even to die in disgrace.
I’m not fond of killing characters, but I do it more often than most writers. I trust that I’ll be able to come up with another character I’ll care about who will move the plot not just forward, but off in new directions. I long for more fiction that gives me the same honest twists and emotional lurches that life provides. I want to feel, as well as be entertained. And I want to get to know all the characters not yet dreamt of who sit on the benches, waiting for their shot.
I hate it when it happens, I’m not going to lie. I bawl. I complain like anyone else. I wish it happened more often.