A word that stabs the heart with fear, lurks in the shadows of the unknown, and causes people to shy away from discussing because it’s too final and frightening.
In books and movies, when characters we love are in danger, we fear for their lives. Why? Because we don’t want them to be snatched out of the story, never to return. We won’t want to mourn their loss, never again experiencing the qualities that drew us to them.
Realistically, for many main characters, death is but a distant threat, a line of black clouds barely glimpsed on the horizon. After all, we needn’t fear their final demise when the movie has just begun or we’re only partway through the book.
Our innate sense of storytelling reminds us that if the story is about a particular character, he or she can’t die until near the end, otherwise what’s the point of the story continuing? The longer a series goes, the more threatening is the possibility of death, but deep down we expect the majority of the main players to hang around for most of the action.
Still, we don’t want our favorites to die. Once they’re gone, they won’t be back. We, as mortal humans, have no control over the domain of death. Or do we?
We’ve always been fascinated with the idea of death, and not always in a morbid sense. It’s a mystery, and we want to peer behind the veil to see what secrets it holds. It’s no surprise, then, that this desire finds a home in fiction. In a profession founded on what-ifs, we wonder, “What if we could play God and conquer death?”
In recent years, this question has come into the spotlight thanks mainly to a pair of entertainment giants.
After Phil Coulson’s death in The Avengers, Marvel gave us T.A.H.I.T.I., that magical place where death could be beaten by knowledge, skill, and technology.
With its various television and box office productions, DC seems overly fond of revisiting this attempt to play God. A few examples:
- The TV show Arrow makes you wonder if the screenwriters are so in love with the characters that after killing them, they need to find a way to bring them back to life.
- In the current season of Gotham, we’ve been introduced to a strange doctor with tinted eyeglasses and a penchant for dabbling in resurrection techniques. The result? A story where even those who’ve died can’t be completely forgotten. Who knows, maybe they’ll return from the grave.
There are two problems with these scenarios. First, the obvious flaw that we, despite the most advanced technology and science, can’t play God. In the Wheel of Time series, even the world’s most powerful channeler couldn’t use magic to overcome the finality of death.
My goal isn’t to wade into a philosophical or religious study of death and what our attempts to play God mean. Rather, I want to look at it from a storytelling standpoint, which brings us to the second problem. Our fascination with controlling death is clear, but what are the repercussions of that in terms of the story?
3 Storytelling Drawbacks When Man Plays God
1. It removes the threat. If characters can be brought back to life, why worry when someone we care about is endangered? Gone is the tension of battles, the anxiety when the villain has the hero in his clutches or a blade to the throat of the romantic interest. The story takes on a bland hue, robbed of the intricacy provided by a character’s death.
2. It reduces the consequences. Many stories use sacrifice as a central theme. Often, characters don’t literally sacrifice their lives, but some do. Removing the finality of death removes the potency of that act. If characters keep returning *cough* DC *cough*, we become jaded with death scenes because we have the nagging question, “Will this character come back somehow?”
Recently, my family watched an episode of a TV show and one of the characters died. Someone commented, “I’m not buying it.” Therein lies the problem. It’s happened so many times now, we’ve become skeptical that a character’s death actually impacts the story in a meaningful way, other than setting them up for a suspected-and-therefore-not-surprising return.
3. It minimizes death. This ties to the problem above. For viewers, it makes death seem less terrible than it is, a thing to be manipulated at the will of Hollywood directors instead of what it is—a grim reality of life.
Don’t get me wrong. There are examples of this back-from-the-dead trend that work, such as Gandalf—though admittedly his return was the result of divine orchestration. But with how popular this approach has become, such instances are quickly turning cliché.
Stories should always strive to be unique and different. This flood of resurrected characters has become too predictable. And anyway, we all know that when man plays God it never ends well.
What do you think of the impact this trend has on storytelling?