Thursday, November 20, 2008

For Mortal Men, Doomed to Die

Between anxiety attacks and writing a ghost story (for ghosts), I have death on the brain (as opposed to brain death, which is much more serious and even less pleasant). What does a blog exist for if not to channel such morbid urges into meaningful content? Let's talk about character death.

In the roleplaying arena, I've only had a character die on me the once. It was my freshman year of college, and we were playing the granddaddy game of them all, Dungeons & Dragons. We were playing in the Forgotten Realms, and my character was from some obscure middle eastern-esque nation. He was a wizard. He had some elaborate backstory I can barely remember now, full of wealth, betrayal, and usurpation. It mattered a lot to me at the time, but not to anyone else. I was proud of his appearance - elegant, thin, and dark skinned, with rose-colored hair (red hair that was bleached by the strong desert sun of his homeland). The most I got from that was that a friend's barbarian called him "pinky." Then, on some fairly meaningless dungeon crawl, we encountered a hulking, six-eyed, gray-skinned monstrosity that tore my dude apart.

In case you hadn't guessed, I don't exactly have fond memories of that particular gaming experience.

Anyway, my next character was better suited to that particular game, and after a while I drifted away from those gamers and started playing with people whose philosophy of gaming matched mine better. The experience, however, stuck with me.

When it comes to writing, I've only killed off two main (point of view) characters, both in A Knight of the Land. Ibosh Idabelesh, best friend of the main character, Kurzon Mors, doesn't make it. He dies heroically in the final battle... though I kind of wimp out. Ibosh lives on as part of the Council of Voices, the disembodied spirits that guide the Knights of the Land. I also kill of Kurzon's brother Iveren, though that death is much more ambiguous. Iveren started off sympathetic, but he slowly loses sight of his moral compass throughout the story, until his death is almost the best thing that could happen. In all my long history of writing stories, I've never killed anyone other perspective characters, and not just because I have a bad habit of not finishing stories. I haven't even planned on killing anyone in most of them.

Frankly, I think it's that death is the ultimate downer. Even if you contrive to make a character's death not the end of the story - impossible in a roleplaying game, at least for that character's player, but sometimes feasible in a fiction - it's still pretty depressing. And really, who wants that?

The trouble is, some of the best character killers are also the best writers. George R.R. Martin, for example, has cut out my heart and made me eat it twice in A Song of Ice and Fire, and I love him for it. He has very nearly no mercy on his audience, and it makes his series hard-hitting, gritty, and intense.

That doesn't mean I think killing characters off right and left is a sure way to create hard-hitting stories. I think that Joss Whedon's habit of giving characters stupid deaths just to prove that he is 'hard' is his only glaring flaw, so it's more complex than a love-hate relationship with character death. There is definitely a right way and a wrong way to go about killing characters.

I don't quite know how to resolve this paradox. I don't like kill characters in stories, and I don't like to run roleplaying games where my players feel like their characters are in danger of dropping dead left and right, their stories left hanging in the air. At the same time, I don't want my players to feel like their characters don't matter and their choices don't have consequences, and when I read authors like George R.R. Martin, I think "I want me some of that."

The only guideline I have so far is this: when a character dies it's the end of a story. Even if the plot continues, that story is over. Don't do it lightly. Have compassion on the readers (and the players), because we love our characters and want them to live forever, even though we know it can't happen.

But they have to die sometime. If I ever figure out how that's done properly, I'll let you know.

* * *

  • When has a character death - fiction or roleplaying - left a particularly good taste in your mouth?
  • When has a character death gone poorly?
  • When have you killed off a character in a game you were running, playing in, or in a story you were writing? How did it go, and what might you do differently if you had it to do again?


Ben said...

Hi. Just found your blog by following a link from ISBW. I'm liking what I've see so far.

I've only ever killed one character while GMing. It was a good scene. The characters were invading a bandit hideout in an icy cave. One player failed a perception roll and was about to get cut off from the others and probably killed, so another player had his character jump in and attack four bandits at the same time. I happened to roll really well on the attacks, and he died from two separate sword blows (criticals in Rolemaster). The other character survived, so it ended up as a cool sacrificial scene. The player wasn't upset because he knew he was putting himself in mortal danger for the sake of another character.

I didn't set this up intentionally at all. It just happened based on player decisions and the luck of the dice.

Scattercat said...

I've been told (by a random lunatic, admittedly) that I am a heartless person because I don't "care" for my characters enough. (And because they only exist for me to lord over like a god - A GOD I TELL YOU! - and... yeah, s/he was kind of nutty and had read all of two stories, both of them written as exercises rather than as polished pieces for publication.)

Looking over my stories, I have noticed that a disproportionate number of them end with horrible death, or at least ambiguous possible-death. On the flipside, as a GM I have never killed a character via random dice (which drives me nuts) and only occasionally due to utterly unavoidable character-fucked-themselves-over I-can't-think-how-to-save-them situations. (And even then, sometimes, I will fake it.)

I do hate to actually kill anyone on-screen though. Generally, my deaths happen offstage, to be inferred, or as a dramatic finale. I do actually cry when sad things happen to my characters, which is probably very pathetic of me.

I'm not sure what any of this means. Perhaps I should seek professional help.

Anonymous said...

@ Ben - that's part of the beauty of a roleplaying game. Sometimes the dice supply us with cool ideas that would never have occurred to us otherwise. However, I've never killed a character on a random die roll, and I don't think I could. I think it would take the die roll, and then the player looking at me and surprising me by saying "this is it, this is a good place to end his/her story" for me to be ok with it. I mean, I'd make that fatal die roll mean something, but I don't think I could do it. I don't think I could let the death stick.

Thanks for coming! I hope you enjoy your stay!

@ Scattercat - Nah, professional help would be a stunning overreaction.

I think you and I GM in more or less the same way. And I agree that your stories can often be pretty dark... but I like them that way. You get a certain clever, quirky, downbeat sensibility that I can't quite approach, and I think it's pretty cool.

Ben said...

I don't like killing characters at all, but I never fudge the dice. I roll everything in the open for the players to see. But I frequently manipulate the setting and circumstance to prevent disaster.
I was already planning some way to save the character who had become separated. It was the player's choice to jump into a deadly situation.

Scattercat said...

"Quirky" is probably about the right word. I seem to come at everything sideways. I think it's pathological. I remember even back in high school, when they gave us writing assignments and prompts, and I would immediately set about thinking of ways to subvert them.

Thanks for the compliments, though. Let's see if I can maintain (or even acquire) a fanbase. It's the Internet, right? Quirky is the new trendy.