Death is meaningless. People can try to draw meaning from the end of a person’s life by doing something worthwhile afterwards, but the death itself means nothing. It is the ending of one’s life, either from what society would consider natural causes, or a random catastrophe that can come in the form of disease, nature, or a gun wielding maniac. Death is everywhere, and it’s always just something that happens to people, but when it is written about, suddenly things are very different. In real life, if it happens from something like cancer, it’s just a random stupid tragedy the universe doled out for no reason on someone that didn’t need to go, but when you write about death, it always has meaning, because whether you meant to or not, you wanted to convey something through your writing. You may have been trying to demonstrate that death itself has no meaning by writing a meaningless death, or maybe you just wanted to say something about the character that died in general, either way, death always means something when it’s written about. It’s almost a strategic tool writers have, because it can be used in a variety of ways, but I fear people may be missing that fact when they talk about it in Television.
We all know Joss Whedon loves to kill his characters (a statement he would no-doubt hate to read), and while many praise him for this trait, not many people stop to ask why. Why does Whedon kill? He isn’t doing it just because, it’s meant to serve a purpose. He wants to create a sense of despair and uneasiness to counter-balance the humour and lightness in his stories. He wants to ground his stories and characters with stakes that hold meaning to the audience. These deaths he writes wouldn’t mean a thing if we didn’t spend so much time learning to love his characters. There is a time and a place to write deaths in fiction, killing characters always carries a price.
When you kill characters, you’re destroying the potential for an infinite amount of possible interactions. You are shutting the world you created off to some of its components, and if you don’t have a damn good reason for that, then it’s not automatically good writing just because you were willing to kill them. If a character was dead weight, then good, you closed the audience off from something that was wasting their time, and if you’re goal was to raise tension, that could be a good thing or a bad thing. Sometimes I watch shows where writers would kill off a great character just to create the feeling that “anyone could die”, but unfortunately that feeling didn’t seem to fit with that show’s narrative. If the show wasn’t reliant on stakes or tension, if the narrative just doesn’t fit together with something as potent as dread, then that death would have served no constructive purpose. It would have just been a death just for the sake of a death.
Interestingly enough, Ryan Murphy and his team seems to grasp this with his new show Scream Queens. Similar to Whedon, Murphy has always been a writer who likes to mix lightness with darkness, but on top of that, he unintentionally tends to mix brilliance and awfulness in the quality of his writing. Nowhere is that more present in Scream Queens which feels at once refreshing and frustrating. However, if there’s one thing it seems to understand completely, it’s the importance of character dynamics. It’s a show that loves to place its wacky, over the top, and mostly mean-spirited characters together and have them play off each other with snide remarks or drawn out insult-speeches (only those two things, nothing else). Sometimes they rear too closely to uncomfortable racial humour (something few shows have a good grasp on), but they’re just sharp enough to keep you invested. Despite being a show about a slasher villain slaughtering teens at a college campus, its main strength is in its comedy, and the show gets that as well. That’s why the fact that it refuses to kill its principle cast is a good thing, and not a flaw as many like to paint it as.
The show’s villains seem more interested in killing off “cannon fodder” (as described by a particularly nasty Dean portrayed by Jaimie Lee Curtis) and its vast coalition of poorly acted members of the recurring cast, rather than harming anyone from the mostly well realized main cast. This is good, because that’s where the show’s strengths are, in its main cast. The writers are smart not to just arbitrarily kill main characters near the start of the series for stakes that wouldn’t materialize even if they did. These characters are unlikable and selfish, the show has never tried to be truly scary or tense (it plays like a live action cartoon), and it is more well suited for mocking horror conventions than playing to them. It isn’t good writing to kill characters without a good reason, and as flawed as Scream Queens is, at least it understands this.
Deaths, like anything else in writing, should be used with thought and understanding, not just for the character that is dying, but the fictional world itself. Sometimes the decision not to kill a character could be just as bold as keeping them alive. One could be mistaken in their decision to kill a character shouldn’t have gone just as one could be unambitious in their desire to keep someone alive that really needs to leave. Unlike in real life, it always means something when someone dies, so when you decide to kill a character, make sure you understand why.
Quote of the Day:
“I wasn’t gonna let that be another random horrible event in another random horrible world. So I decided to use it, to make her death matter.”
– Angel, Angel.