The Trouble With Coming Back From the Dead

| Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Today's Tune: Rawnald Gregory Erickson the Second

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?


{ We Heart YA } at: January 11, 2012 at 6:04 AM said...

Wow, what a thoughtful post. In kind of an unexpected but fittingly to start our gray, rainy Wednesday morning…

We love the two examples that you chose -- Dr. Who and Harry Potter -- and how you clarify that it's not about right or wrong.

This might be lame, but I think we basically agree with you. Death is a very powerful, emotional concept. There are a lot of ways to portray that infection, and any of them can succeed if they are carefully and consciously crafted.

{ TL Conway } at: January 11, 2012 at 7:12 AM said...

I like to believe that dead means dead. As a writer, I will kill someone for a reason, not just a "shock and awe" tactic, nor for a "Surprise! They're back!" move.

However... words cannot express how bad I wanted the blue eye in the mirror shard in HP7 to be a living Dumbledore. SO. BAD.

But yeah, my working rule of thumb is: Dead means dead. For good.

{ Old Kitty } at: January 11, 2012 at 9:03 AM said...

Death in Terry Pratchett so rocks and you can't get deader than his Death!


There's nothing like feeling cheated - (I'm thinking Bobby Dallas dying only for it all to be a dream!) but nothing like death and coming back from the dead like in Dr Who (not just Rory but the Dr Who re-incarnations) - where each time your emotions are wrenched and the viewer is left scarred by each death and awakening.

Take care

{ TL Conway } at: January 11, 2012 at 1:30 PM said...

And because I know you've mentioned both Supernatural and Logan Echolls in previous blogs, did you see who's guest starring on this week's new Supernatural?!

Why hello, Jason Dohring. :)

{ Tara } at: January 11, 2012 at 2:47 PM said...

"However... words cannot express how bad I wanted the blue eye in the mirror shard in HP7 to be a living Dumbledore. SO. BAD."


Anyway, I think that bringing a character back to life probably can be carried off well if the whole thing is carefully plotted from the beginning to make logical and emotional sense. The problem--at least with series TV--is that it's usually not planned out seasons in advance, and the writers have to scramble later to make it all make sense when they bring a character back.

I don't want to spoil anything, so I won't mention the character's name, but the stuff that went down in the final seasons of Battlestar Galactica, for instance, was not explained to my liking. And from what I know of how things worked behind the scenes on that show, I'm pretty sure the writers didn't know how they were going to explain it until the show was ending and they had to come up with something.

{ Mindy McGinnis } at: January 11, 2012 at 5:41 PM said...

Agreed - I think you can get away with anything if you do it well. I prefer my dead people to stay dead though. Otherwise it takes away the impact of... well, their death.

{ Whirlochre } at: January 11, 2012 at 10:57 PM said...

Cheese aside, there was a time when resurrections were rare and miraculous.

Since the advent of RPGs, no-one ever truly dies, and this has spread into books and drama.

If it's a trend that's catching on rapidly, it's a shame Sylvester Stallone hasn't got to the initial death part yet. All his films would have been so much better if the characters he played had died in the first minute.

{ vic caswell (aspiring-x) } at: January 13, 2012 at 6:25 AM said...

oh my goodness! they killed KENNY!!!!????!!!!
totally agree with your points and the commenter who wanted dumbledore back to life!
i do prefer for characters to stay dead, but i do think jack harkness and kenny and the dr's are handled well, though i haven't seen the rory episodes (most matt smith) yet. also, buffy and supernatural, they both really seem to teeter the line between too much resurrection and unique bring-backs into plotlines.

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