Death Doesn’t Come with a Refund

I’ve gotten crabby about death. Character death. I don’t trust it. A character dies, then I spend the rest of the book (episode, movie…) waiting for them to come back to life. It sometimes even ruins the impact of their death scene, I’m so convinced it’s meaningless.

It can be done properly; I’m not denying that. Sometimes, the natural course of the plot makes it not only acceptable but satisfying. Maybe there’s an afterlife portion of the story, or maybe another character gives up their life to bring the other back, or they just couldn’t die yet because they needed a pint of some damn good cider to ply St. Peter with.

Without diminishing the impact of those who can pull it off, then, back to how crabby I am. Most fictional deaths involve meaning. Sacrifice. Nothing else mattered to them as much, so they kept going until it killed them. Not if it killed them, until. There’s power in that.

The moment the price they paid is given back as a full refund, that meaning vanishes.

Not all of it, I suppose. They were willing. But there’s virtually no difference between alive-but-slightly-crispy and dead-but-just-kidding. It cheapens the emotions of the audience and the other characters because it’s a fake out. Why bother being sad they’re dead? They’re not really. Give it another ten pages/five minutes.

Side character reactions can be quite valuable. Who’s broken into little pieces? Who’s holding everyone together? Who Hulks out? Their reactions to rebirth are much less telling. Virtually everyone is relieved/overjoyed/fine again. Of course they are. They didn’t want the poor sap to die. But unless the reason is, “of course they are, they’re [specific character],” it’s not terribly interesting of a reaction, is it?

Doing it every now and then isn’t so bad. I probably won’t throw my book out the window. Until it’s clear my emotions mean nothing. (Okay, being honest, it’s more like “gently set the book down then scream my rage out the window.” I wouldn’t mutilate a poor, innocent book like that.)

Even better: make it a whole story that takes up time, brings up new sacrifices and struggles. Key word: new. They paid for their life back; it wasn’t a refund.

You can bet, though, that I don’t believe a single one of the deaths in Supernatural anymore. Especially of the main cast. There’s no way they’re going to stay dead. Often, the stories of how they come back to life are interesting and rife with sacrifice themselves, but there are full refunds, too. I’m sure some people find the “God did it” explanation to be moving, but I don’t. I see the hand of the writer. “God works in mysterious ways” is practically a requirement of the kind of story that revolves around Him. Direct intervention of one tiny character’s revival is cheating. If God wants them to win, He makes sure they have the tools to do it; he doesn’t jump in to do it himself. If He does, it’s not a freebie. There are (should be) consequences.

Song of Ice and Fire was great for a while about killing and staying killed. It was a harsh story to read, losing beloved character after beloved character, but they were powerful deaths. Character mistakes, greed, recklessness, bravery, the whole spectrum. It was glorious in its brutality. And then the fake outs started. Rumors of death that weren’t true. Okay, that’s fair, medieval-type setting. I can dig it. Oh no, look! That character totally died! No. No, wait, no they didn’t. They’re fine. Them, too. And them. Oh, that confirmed death was a fake out, too. Sorry not sorry. When the fake outs outnumbered the deaths, I quit. Yank me around all you wish, but with purpose. Don’t take advantage of the fact that I’ll believe you because of your body count, then quit delivering because it’s more fun to make me dance.

I don’t trust you anymore.

That’s what it boils down to. Back to life on a budget isn’t fair storytelling. What did they pay to get their life back? What problems did it cause? How did their death and their rebirth further the story? If all of these questions don’t have good answers, I’ve lost faith in you, author. You get a few freebies, and if the rest of the story is compelling enough, I might hang around anyway, but is that a risk you want to take for cheap storytelling?

Good storytellers then have to suffer at the hands of my mistrust before I know better. I read a book recently that had a main character die, and it hurt a bit. I liked her. She was in danger because of (1) plot complications, (2) character decisions, and (3) her own moxie. Great build-up. Hell of a gut punch to the main character. But hey, it’s got fantasy elements to it. I don’t know this author. Maybe she’ll be back in the next couple chapters. After all, she’s a great addition to the main cast. Great foil for the main character. Had to be fun to write. Must’ve been hard to let go. Yeah, she probably comes back to life.

She didn’t. The author immediately got my respect. And the funeral hurt a lot.

More of that, please.

4 thoughts on “Death Doesn’t Come with a Refund

  1. I think this is a very good point. One of my stories is begging for a character resurrection, but I don’t want to because of all the reasons listed. However, the “cost of life” might balance it out. Now to figure out making it work…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lucia says:

      Obviously, I’m not an authority, but I feel like if the reader has answers to those questions I mentioned (what did it cost? What problems did it cause? How did it further the story?), and none of the answers are just that you needed/wanted your character back, it can work.

      Despite all my bellyaching, when it’s done right, I don’t care what anyone else has done. I’m too busy loving the story.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. modzy78 says:

    I agree with you. I watched Supernatural through season 5 (the planned end point) and was disappointed with how many characters were killed and brought back in that episode. I would have preferred it bowing out with a satisfying ending instead of milking it for all it’s worth. (And is it worth watching from season 6? I’ve been nervous to give it a go.)
    And don’t even get me started with A Song of Ice and Fire. All of the ways of resurrection are becoming quite annoying. (Just so long as the first book’s major death isn’t undone.)


    • Lucia says:

      Whether it’s worth it or not really depends. Sam and Dean keep making the same communication mistakes they’ve always made and it (surprise) keeps causing them problems. Characters keep dying and coming back to life. But quite often, the stories of them coming back to life are worth watching.

      For me personally, I pay attention to stories for characters. So, while I’m annoyed with Supernatural for its treatment of death, I still like the characters too much to stop watching. I haven’t seen the latest season, though, I’m only watching it on Netflix.


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