Death is a plot device that if used correctly, can bring great drama and humanization into a work. However, if used badly it can grow contempt and boredom in your audience and I fear that more and more shows and films are misusing death.
Spoilers for recent Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, Adventure Time and Daredevil below.
The problem is that if you use death too much, it stops being dramatic and becomes mundane which can hurt your work significantly. Take Dragon Ball for example, in the original series, death is used sparingly which is what made the King Piccolo saga so effective when Krillin and Roshi were killed. It meant more and most importantly, there Death mattered to the characters, something I’ll get into more later.
However, by the Boo Arc of Dragon Ball Z, Death was such a common occurrence that it lost all of its dramatic muster which was not helped because the audience knew they could easily just be brought back with Dragon Balls. They even say in the show that the near extinction of the human race and the destruction of the earth was only a minor problem because they could just use their back up Dragon Balls.
With mundanity, boredom and contempt can grow which is never a good situation for a writer to be in because if your audience is bored of your work, why wouldn’t they just go and watch/read something more interesting? If the audience is just annoyed at your work, why wouldn’t they just go watch something less annoying?
And the thing is, when you kill characters, you’re not only robbing him/her from the audience, but also him/her from yourself as the writer. If you want to kill a character off, question why do you want to kill the character off? I was always taught to write down all the interesting stories that can be done with this character being alive and then write down all the interesting stories that can be told with the characters death. If the alive out ways the death, don’t kill off the character.
To many times I’ve heard people defend pointless deaths with “It’s to show how hard/realistic/dark that world is”. But I find that a rather lazy mentality because like with rape, there are many ways you can show that without random killing and really just shows a lack of creative thought If the only way you can show that you world is dark is through constant death.
I would much rather see a single interesting character, who is givin time to develop and is given many adventures, then tons of possibly interesting characters killed off before we could get attached to them.
Game of Thrones for me is the perfect example of this. By season 4, I couldn’t really care about any of the characters as I knew they could be killed off just for some forced shock moments. Not helped was that the show seemed rather homophobic and fridged any LGBTQ+ characters. It’s why it took me so long to watch season 5 because I just couldn’t be bothered and when I did, I just didn’t care about anything that was happening.
The same goes for recent Doctor Who and Daredevil. Osgood and Ben Urich’s deaths are pointless and do nothing for the story and just feel like the writers just couldn’t be bothered thinking of more interesting stories with them. It’s just lazy and when the only way you can defend their deaths is with, “Pointless things happen”, then that just come across as bad writing.
And this is something to remember, the characters deaths have to matter. All too often, the MCU, Doctor Who and most Hollywood films have fallen into the trap of making the death’s meaningless with constant fake outs. The MCU is especially bad for this as the constant fake outs at this point feel tiring and boring.
They also have to matter to the characters in universe as well. All too often, the main characters in shows seem to quickly get over character death so fast that it makes their Deaths feel meaningless and just irritates & ticks off the audience. Not only does this make the characters look cold and arseholes, it’s thematically bankrupt and just robs the death of any drama.
To name a good example, the death of James in Adventure Time has great importance and matters greatly to the characters. Not only does James in less than 10 minutes get more personality and development then Stannis, Oberyn and Khal combined, but we really do see how his death affected Finn and Jake as well as giving us more insight into how Princess Bubblegum’s mind works. Plus, we get follow up to his death in a sequel episode that helps develop these ideas and themes.
Lastly, if the deaths feel like you’re going after certain groups like LGBTQ+ people and women, you could end up looking like a tool at best and a bigot at worse. There is a reason why women in refrigerators is such a popular phrase nowadays because interesting and important women being killed off constantly in the media is such a tired trope now, it really needs to be re-examined.
This isn’t to say death doesn’t have its place, far from it, there is a reason why Boromir, Bambi’s mother and Kamina’s death’s resonated the way they did. Death can be used so greatly when it is used carefully, sparingly and given consequence. But when botched, you can end up with a situation like with Marvel’s Ultimatum which not only robbed the Ultimate universe of so much because of pointless killing, it damaged that universe permanently.