OR FROM A GREAT HEIGHT: KILLING OFF CHARACTERS IN EPIC FANTASY
“They can die heroically, comically, ironically, slowly, suddenly, disgustingly, charmingly, or from a great height.”
ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD, Tom Stoppard
“‘Daniel Edlen was a fantasy author. Haven’t your new friends told you what a fantasy author is?’ he asked. ‘There is not known to the world of men, elves, Yorgs or estate agents a vocation that more feeds on death, destruction, chaos, pain and agony than that of the fantasy author. Why, in BLOOD OF THE WIND LORD alone we must have killed off almost two-hundred thousand people.’”
THE TOLKIENARIUM, Adrian Tchaikovsky
One of the grand advantages of being asked to write guest blogs is that you can juxtapose one of the greatest living playwrights with a quote from a probably never-to-be-published short story you did a while ago, and nobody can stop you.
Hello, I kill imaginary people for a living. It has a number of advantages over doing it for real, mostly that you don’t need to worry about hiding the bodies. It would give the wrong impression to say that epic fantasy is where characters go to die. After all, most of them don’t know that’s why they’re going there, poor schmucks. They all have such great plans and ambitions. Sometimes it’s almost a shame to crush them…
"Murder your darlings" they say on those writing courses. And we do! Not just those scenes and plot-ends that get pruned from the finished book, but the characters, lots and lots of characters. At the end of a first draft I sometimes feel like the camera's panning away from me as I stand in the centre of a battlefield of corpses, all of whom trusted me, and were savagely betrayed by narrative momentum.
We have good narrative reasons for doing it. I mean, it’s not like it’s a compulsion. If the plot didn’t demand it, I could quit wholesale slaughter tomorrow, seriously. But it’s death. Death is one of the prime movers of plot. As a source of conflict, it’s hard to beat. And there are so many reasons to kill off our poor characters. It’s no wonder so much of epic fantasy is an exercise in turning a cast of thousands into a one man show.
The dramatic death, of course, is enshrined in myth and legend and the early romances. A good heroic dying at the apposite moment while achieving something useful is always good. Few heroes die in bed, after all. It speaks to something very deep within us, and perhaps it’s simply that we know we all die, and it’s pleasant to read that sometimes that death can mean something more than a candle blowing out.
But there are other deaths than the grand opera death, and with the epic fantasy genre where it currently is – enjoying a somewhat darker, grittier and more down to earth phase – the glorious fantasy death is, in a way, being highlighted by all the mean and nasty deaths surrounding it.
We can kill them off in unpleasant ways because they deserve it (another point of satisfaction for the reader). We can kill them off because real life is random and unfair, and whilst fantasy has often been devoid of such quirks, these days death by ricochet or falling rocks. The old trope of the foot soldiers being mown down whilst the hero is the last man standing doesn’t necessarily hold these days.
We can kill them off because, frankly, they are in the wrong place, and it's going to get them killed. Characters have their own momentum, they do things for their own reasons based on the internal logic that we have gifted them with. They die. Sometimes we can't save them from themselves, or from other characters. It's a bit like keeping certain kinds of exotic pets. If you must keep them in the same vivarium, come down in the morning and you might be missing a few.
We can kill them to show we mean business. Spoilering no spoilers but anyone who’s got far enough in GAME OF THRONES knows just what I mean. Once a major character who plainly had a grand character arc ahead of them gets brutally hacked up, the field is wide open and nobody is safe. It is a sacrifice of power that gives the author considerable leeway in what he can get you to believe.
I would not go so far as to say that, when a series has been running for a while, we kill them just because there are a lot of them and some sort of cull seems necessary to stop them forming a union and demanding better working conditions. However, I will confess that there was one character left over from an earlier book who meets an unpleasant death in THE SEAL OF THE WORM purely because I was reminded that they were still alive, and living in a place where Bad Things were about to happen. I’m a tidy-minded sort. The temptation to wrap up his personal plot was just too strong.
And yet it is those moments that so frequently form the emotional zenith of a book. The tragic death of the hero who arrived just in time - or just too late. The richly merited death of the evil henchman, the grand guignol demise of the arch-villain, the embattled passing of that minor character that we end up recalling with more clarity than the book's actual denouement. Death is one of the great universal themes. It touches us, inspires us, shocks us. And we know this, and we move our chess pieces just so, and a moment of personal oblivion becomes a building block of the greater drama.
As Pratchett writes: “Gods might note the fall of a sparrow but they don't make any effort to catch them.”