A Few Words on Character Deaths

PLEASE NOTE:  

This entry may contain spoilers!  Proceed at your own risk.

I recently watched the anime Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam and loved it.  The story was interesting, the characters engaging, even the secondary characters (a trait the early Gundam shows are famous for), and a great mix of comedy and melodrama.  I followed the characters on their journey, through trials, tribulations, daring plans, narrow escapes, joys, sorrows, and maturation through 48 amazing episodes.  Then, the final episodes 49 and 50….everything fell apart.  Within those two episodes, half the cast was killed off and one was left alive, but rendered absolutely flippin’ insane.  And the story ends.  Just like that.  No time for me or the survivors to mourn, just stare at the rolling credits going, “What?!  That’s it?!”

I sent a text to my friend Fullmetal, who had lent me the series, that said:  “Well.  I just finished watching Zeta Gundam. The show was AWESOME…up until the last two episodes.  Those last two sucked.  An unresolved cop-out!”

His response:  “But everyone dies.”

Exactly!  That’s why I thought the last episodes were so awful and unresolved!  After going through so many close calls and tight situations, these people can’t make it through another hour of screen time?  Yet, conversely, the same reason I hated the last two episodes (massive character death) was the same reason Fullmetal (and several other friends of mine) liked it, or shows and books that pull off a similar trick.  I really do not understand that mentality.  Perhaps it’s because character death like that is more realistic.  In real life, yeah, the chances of any of the Zeta Gundam characters surviving any length of time is slim to none.  No one has that kind of luck and even the most skilled pilots can be faced with an unwinnable situation or freak accident.

Yes, that’s more realistic, but I don’t watch anime or read demanding realism.  I demand that people react in realistic ways and that the rules of the world follow a consistent, logical pattern that has been established by the author.  You can’t change the rules midstream or never establish rules to begin with.  I live in reality and reality is cold, cruel, and unfair.  I like being able to immerse myself in a world where justice, honor, and bravery are rewarded and keep the characters alive.  I know that the chances of this happening in real life are slim, but this is FICTION!

Without some threat of death, there is little tension, so I understand that some characters need to be killed.  That’s why, even though the deaths of secondary characters and one, maybe two more major characters upset me, but I understand them.  For example, I was upset when Reccoa Londe died, but I understood why.  She had passed the point of no return when she stood by and allowed the Titans to gas a colony.  She had her chance at redemption, and she missed it.  There was no going back.  Likewise, I cried when Apolly Bay was killed protected Fa Yuiry.  It was awful and sad, but I understood it, and, given some time, I came to terms with it.  As a writer, you need to follow through with the threat of death, otherwise it feels hollow and the readers/watchers don’t feel like the characters are actually in deadly danger.  But, at the same time, I want to have characters that are safe to love because you aren’t going to lose them.  That might sound naïve, but I want someone who is safe to love, and I think that most people want that on some level.  It’s unrealistic to expect that from real people who are unpredictable and shaped by amazingly complex forces, but it isn’t unrealistic to want or expect that from fictional characters.  There’s a level of control and predictability that is present in fiction that can’t be found in real life.

Also, if I’m going to sink the time, attention, and affection required to go through 25 hours of animation, I don’t want to spend that much time growing to love these characters, only to have them all die at the very end.  I leaves me feeling angry, unhappy, and cheated.  I was seriously considering buying a copy of Zeta Gundam, I loved it so much, but those last two unappealing episodes invalidated the enjoyment I’d gotten from the other 48.  I don’t want to spend the money on a show that I’ll watch, but can’t enjoy all the way through because I know most of them die at the end.  It also prevents me from recommending the show to anyone else.  “Yeah, just watch the first 48 episodes.”  You can’t really do that and get a conclusion (seeing Paptimus Scirocco and Jerid Mesa die is satisfying), but in order to get that conclusion, you have to go through a great deal of pain.  Plus, Haman Karn and Yazan Gable live!  SO MANY OTHERS DIE, AND THEY GET TO LIVE!  WHY?!

Again, realistic, but not viscerally satisfying.

I take no pleasure in seeing a character die unless they richly deserve it.  For some reason, seeing characters suffer pain (as long as they eventually recover) gives me emotional distress, but not the thwarted anger that death does.  It gives the sense of danger without the permanence of death.  So I can torture characters all day long, but can rarely bring myself to kill them.  I simply do not understand the mindset that allows people to enjoy, even relish, shows and books that employ massive character death, especially at the end of the story.  It seems to me like that should detract from a show’s enjoyment, not add to it.  Color me naïve, but that kind of trick seems cheap and a disservice to the characters as well as the readers or viewers.  Especially if it’s at the very end of the story!  These people have been through hell!  Surely they deserve a better fate than an ignoble death such at this! Even a noble death can ring hollow.  Dead is dead.  I would say that people who like those kinds of endings have never suffered any real personal loss, like a family member dying, but I know at least one of my friends who likes these endings (even if they don’t relish them like Fullmetal) suffered a great tragedy, so that explanation doesn’t make any sense.  Maybe that kind of ending resonates with them, I don’t know.  I’ve had family members die and it only makes me want to avoid massive character death even more.

So, the moral of this rant is that, while I understand that character death is necessary in some instances, I always think long and hard about it before making that commitment to kill them off.  I want to make sure that I make the most of their death.  I hope that God gives me the same consideration.

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2 responses to “A Few Words on Character Deaths

  1. Heh. Just tallied up the dead for MisPan… out of a cast of roughly 48, only 13 live to see the end of the series. (Is that, like, an omen or something?) Damn… I really had thought it was more than that… would you like to know who survives? It might make you happy- two of your three favorites made the cut. xD

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