Rawnald Gregory Erickson the SecondToday's Tune:
This post has nothing to do with zombies. But it does have a lot to do with characters that come back from the dead.
Do you watch soap operas? Probably not. Neither do I. But I know people who do, and I've seen enough snippets to know that it's not at all uncommon for a character to be killed off and then brought back later in some form. Long lost twin! Ghost! Witch's spell! Time travel! Reanimated by aliens! They didn't really die! Or whatever!
And let's face it, cheesy soap operas are not the only television shows that fall victim to these tropes. Some great television dramas use them as well, to varying effect. Buffy. Lost. Doctor Who. X-Files. When used sparingly and cleverly, this trope can be very effective at surprising the audience or creating a powerful emotional moment. Sometimes a writer is so skilled that they can create an emotional tidal wave even when the audience KNOWS the character is coming back. However, it can also be overdone, which leads to kind of a big problem.
If you repeatedly kill and resurrect a favorite character, their death starts to lose its freshness and emotional impact. It may even become a running joke. Not a good thing, unless a running gag was your intention (Jack Harkness, anyone?).
Television and novels are very different mediums, of course. With television, there's a lot of pressure to maintain ratings, which may in turn cause pressure to bring back a fan favorite who had previously received the axe. That's all well and good for the fans who wanted the character back again, but some of the storyline's integrity and characterization may be compromised in the process.
Think of this example: Series 5 & 6 of Doctor Who (SPOILERS). Rory is repeatedly "killed," only to be resurrected again and again.The first time, his death was emotionally crushing, even though we suspected it was temporary. The second time, it was even more powerful, because that instance seemed like it could be permanent. After he came back again and died again, the emotional investment began to wane. The audience's reaction to a Rory death became a punchline. How will he die this time? No need to get upset, he'll be back.
Now think of Harry Potter. Characters who die remain dead. Think of how visceral, how gutting, it was to lose someone in the Harry Potter universe. If they died, they were gone. Any resurrection at all came in the form of ghosts, shadows, echos of the past. That emotion was real, and raw, and powerful. It never lost its potency. There was a chance of seeing a favorite character again, but as the Resurrection Stone showed us, they'd always be beyond the veil. We, and Harry, could never touch them again.
This isn't to say that Harry Potter does death right and Doctor Who does death wrong. Not at all. There are always risks involved with character death, and there are many tropes to play with and explore. The Doctor Who universe has played with character death in many forms, many of them very successful at resonating with the audience. Likewise, there are those who are critical of Rowling for being so "brutal" and "careless" in cutting down her characters.
But as with anything else in fiction, it's important to think about what we want to portray. Death is a metaphor for many things. It's literal for many things. Bringing someone back from the dead is a fantasy. An understandable one, but a fantasy nonetheless. Sometimes we lose the people we love, and it's terrible and angry-making and destructive. Death is a mystery. It's an end and a beginning. There are valid reasons for resurrection, but we should make sure that playing with audience emotion -- or pandering to audience whim -- isn't one of them. That's a cheap out. We can do better.
What do you think? What are your thoughts on death and life and death and life and death?