Podcast

286 – Character Death Revisited

The Mythcreant Podcast
Sometimes, characters die. In some stories, characters die a lot. But is this good for the story? Does it add gravitas and realism, or is it just a cheap way to ruin everyone’s day? We discussed this topic way back in the day, but we’ve changed and learned since then, so it’s time to revisit the topic; this time with guest host Fay Onyx to help us out. What new insights will be learned? Other than how awkward it is to listen to a podcast you recorded six years ago. That one’s pretty obvious.

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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.

Show Notes:

Writing Alchemy

Episode 19: Character Death

Agatha Christie

Murder, She Wrote

Obi-Wan Kenobi

Gandalf

Tara

Icheb

Pitch Meeting: X-Men 3

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power

Avatar: The Last Airbender

A Song of Ice and Fire

Burying Your Gays

The Hays Code

Wells Jaha

Black Guy Dies First

Women in Refrigerators

Wash

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Transcript

Generously transcribed by I. W. Ferguson. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]

Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren. And with me today is Chris and joining us once again is returning special guest host, Fay Onyx of writingalchemy.net

Fay: Hi.

Oren: And you’ve heard of ‘the author is dead’, but what if today, the podcasters were dead.

[Oren sounds like he’s being strangled]

That’s what being dead sounds like.

Chris: We just play a death rattle for the rest of the episode.

Oren: Today, we are talking about character deaths. Again. Cause you real hardcore Mythcreants podcast fans – I know there are apparently some of you out there who have listened to the whole thing (weirdos) –

Chris: Twice, even.

Oren: Yeah. What is going…? What…? Anyway, back in Episode 19, in the year of our lord 2014, we talked about character death. And so it’s been six years. My first thought on character death is: “do not listen to a podcast you recorded six years ago.” That’s my first thought because you will regret it and you will feel shame deep inside you.

Chris: I have to say, still, listening to it, I think that you did the best, Oren. The big thing that we noticed is were much more gung ho on character death six years ago than we are today. But Oren was the voice of reason when we were talking about how cool season six would have been without Buffy. To point out that, no, fans would’ve been pretty mad if they’d not brought Buffy back from the dead for season six.

Fay: The titular hero.

Chris: Yeah. Now I think we’re much more along the lines of: character death creates a lot of problems, so you need a compelling reason to do it. And if you do not have that compelling reason, you probably should not kill off the character.

Oren: Yeah. I used to be all adventurous about character death, but then I mellowed out in my old age now I’m just like, “No, don’t.” Just no. It’s bad idea most of the time. Probably don’t do it.

Fay: It’s so easy to do in a bad way.

Chris: And there are few things that I think are more likely to get audiences to quit a story then the death of a character they like. That’s just something that you will hear again and again, as a reason why somebody discontinues something. Again, you need a real compelling reason to risk the audience departing that way.

Oren: Because the character is a major source of attachment, right? And if people stuck with a story for awhile—even if there are things about it that irritate them—they are attached to the character. And so if you kill the character they were attached to, and then it just turns out the rest of the story isn’t enough to keep them interested. Well, I guess they’re gone. I guess you just set them loose. Be free, audience member. You are no longer tied to be here.
Chris: I’ve also had a number of stories where it wasn’t that that character was so central, a lot of times I liked the character. It’s that I was mad at the story for killing the character, especially since, obviously I’m very critical of stories, and so if I sense that this is a character that died for not a good enough reason and I didn’t like it, and it’s clearly made in a way to make the audience feel bad. Sometimes I just get mad at the storyteller that they made that choice. In addition to the disappointment of not having a character that I liked around.

Fay: I definitely have stopped watching multiple different things that haven’t handled character death well. If I get the feeling that characters are specifically being killed to create more internal struggle for the main character…I’m just not interested in watching a main character that’s constantly tormented. That’s just no fun for me. And if other characters are being killed to make that happen, I’m just like, Nope, I’m done with this. I’m going to go find some media I enjoy better.

Chris: It is definitely worth thinking about how dark the story needs to be before character death makes sense. I do think there’s been so much push recently to make all of our stories dark and all of our big budget, popular stories dark.

Fay: Oh my God.

Chris: When is it going to be over? I like a lot of dark stories. Not necessarily super, super dark stories, but in general, I like dark stories and I’m tired of it.

Fay: Oh my goodness.

Oren: It’s either super dark, where everyone dies, or people constantly pretend to die—and then don’t. Looking at you, Marvel cinematic universe.

But also, the new Star Wars movie, for some reason, it’s like, Oh, Chewbacca is dead. Then, no, I guess not. You said that three or four times in the movie when it looked like a character was dead and then he wasn’t. Wow, okay, this is a lot.

Fay: A classic genre that has light stories with character death in it would be the murder mystery genre. Though, there does seem to be a modern trend of certain murder mysteries that ask, ‘how much can we torment the main character?’ And this is getting in the way of the enjoyment of the thing. I mean, this reason why Agatha Christie is super popular and a lot of her stories are…well, there’s some dark ones, but a lot of it is…even though there is this dark aspect, which is the murder and stuff, a lot of it’s just about these quirky characters and the curiosity of this intricate mystery plot.

Oren: Right. Isn’t the murder victim usually someone that you don’t know super well?

Fay: That is part of what makes it lighter. They’re often a stranger. Although they’re not always, and that does make it a lot more dark if the main character is sad because someone they cared about died. It depends on the actual murder mystery, because if you have Jessica Fletcher from Murder She Wrote—which is a very light series—you will get a lot of the people asking for her help because they have some sort of connection to her. And then she supposedly knows a lot of the people who died—or a significant number. But even then, it tends to be mostly about the living characters having conflicts and working things out, and the focus is on the quirkiness and the mysteriousness of it.

You can actually keep it somewhat light, but it does help if it’s more distant. But even like with the Poirot books, where he is being brought in mostly for strangers, there is this investigation where you get into some of the grief. How grief is depicted will change how dark a death is. So if you have a grief situation where someone’s kid was killed and they’re distraught and it’s just intense grief all the time, and we’re spending a lot of time with that person, it will get really dark.

But if they, say, have another person there with them, who’s helping take care of them. And you have other people helping and you have the sense that the person has connections and support and maybe the community is coming together to make something better in the future so it doesn’t happen to someone else. That will make it a lot lighter. It goes from, Ick, I don’t want to deal with this, to, You know, this is sad and poignant, but it also is beautiful. And I can handle this grief and the story isn’t as dark. It’s more hopeful.

Oren: So, there’s a balance of how much grief or how much dark emotions you want to put, but I was more thinking along the lines of this example: I had a mystery show I was watching that I really enjoyed. (I’m not going to say which one it is, because spoilers, but I was really liking it). We would investigate murders of characters whom we had basically just introduced that episode—if we’d ever seen them at all. So when they died, I merely cared more how it affected the characters who were alive and who I knew. But then at one point they thought, what if a character who’d been around for a while died and we had to solve his murder. Yeah, but that guy is dead now and I liked that guy. And now suddenly I was very critical of how that character died, because it didn’t feel satisfying to me. It felt like, oops, I guess he’s dead, just so we could have a ‘mystery.’ I didn’t love that. I was not into that idea.

Chris: I do think it’s worth clarifying that a lot of times that we’re talking about character death we’re talking about the death of a protagonist that probably has some level of attachment from the audience. But that’s not always the case. There are definitely different levels of attachment. The killing of a jerk character is usually not going to be that upsetting. Sometimes it’s on purpose to create catharsis (and we can talk about whether that’s a good idea or not), but that’s not going to make the audience cry. It’s probably not going to make anybody rage quit if we deliberately set that up.

Another thing that happens is there are definitely characters that seem to be in archetypes that die a lot and the audience predicts it. I do think these patterns are meant to be broken, but in situations, when you have, for instance, Obi-Wan Kenobi, who was the older mentor character, I don’t think we should be killing all of the elderly people that we put in stories. I don’t think that’s a good idea, but when people see that kind of older mentor, I think there’s a sense that they’re ready for that person to die, and it’s less upsetting as a result.

Fay: I would say that, again, how it happens has a huge impact on how dark it is and how it’s received. The fact that we expect it with Obi-Wan definitely helps. And the fact that he’s doing something constructive with his death, he’s facing Darth Vader. He’s also doing some sort of moral thing that we don’t entirely understand, but it’s some sort of, ‘I’m not going to fight you’ and there’s something going on there, something meaningful happening, other people are escaping at the same time. And also, there seems to be something happening with this character where he’s not scared of it, he’s embracing it. And all of those things come together.

Chris: That’s true. Obi-Wan looks very in control of his death.

Fay: Yes.

Chris: There’s also no gore, because he just disappears.

Fay: Right. Which adds that touch of magic; you wonder, is he really gone?

Oren: Yeah. It does feel like Lucas was leaving his options open there. It’s a similar thing to what happens with Gandalf in the first Lord of the Rings book. And of course, you know, he comes back. (Spoilers.) But even if he doesn’t, even if you didn’t know he was coming back, that seems sad.

Still, I don’t think very many people are going to rage quit Lord of the Rings over it—even if they don’t know Gandalf comes back—because it’s such a bad-ass way to go. Because he just did this amazing thing. He didn’t quite die doing the amazing thing; he died immediately afterwards because of a consequence. And that, in general, is going to soften the blow quite a bit.

The worst kinds of deaths are the ones where the character was helpless and had no agency and was just killed. Especially, often killed not even because of anything they did, but because the villain has a beef against someone else. That’s going to make the death way harder to get through.

Fay: One thing I’ve noticed is it really depends on how the death works in the plot. To go back to Obi-Wan stuff, there was a plot thing that was accomplished by him dying: other people escaping. If Obi-Wan had just done that thing and it wasn’t actually necessary for anyone to escape or anything, it would have felt very different.

So deaths that have additional plot functions feel different than ones that are just done to make someone upset. It’s way darker for a villain to kill someone’s significant other to make them suffer than it is to kill the significant other because that person was doing a plot thing that the villain didn’t want them to do.

Oren: The one that really gets me, that I just can’t stand, is when they say, “Run! I’ll hold them off.” And then as you watch the scene unfold, you feel like if we’d stayed, we probably could have just won that fight. It’s a thing I see sometimes.

Chris: “Run! I’ll hold them off.” You could have just run with us, it wouldn’t have made a difference.

Oren: Right. Or, we could all just stay and fight them, because if you can hold them off, that implies you’re a pretty even match for them. With our help, you could probably take them down. Not always, it depends on how you set the scene up, but I have seen a number of situations like that and it’s so irritating.

Fay: One of my top things about what makes a death feel contrived is if you have unevenness in how various genre conventions are happening. So if there’s a genre convention of being able to take on ridiculously powerful people and winning, like in superhero movies, then it’s that one time that they do run away from the powerful person.

Why? You never do this. Why is this character dying to stop the villain while everyone else escapes when that almost never happens? What is different about this time? It focuses your mind on the intentional aspect of the choice that the writer is making. You become more aware of the intentional nature of the death when it basically goes against the genre convention or there’s unevenness about following that convention.

So a classic one would be like how in action movies and superhero movies, a person can hold onto a ledge (or rope or whatever) until they’re saved. And they’ll almost fall, but they’ll hold on until they’re saved. They might even start to fall, as the person grabs them, or they might fall a little bit and then grab onto a root or something, but they can always hold on long enough until the person rescues them.

If the character were to have fallen right before the person gets to them, it will feel extremely contrived because every other time they can hold on long enough. It doesn’t matter how long it is, they can always do it just that long.

Oren: Or, just to pick a completely random, not-real example: if you had, say, an urban fantasy series where the characters were pretty much invincible and you mostly just pretended guns didn’t exist and didn’t want to deal with their implications. If you just suddenly had a beloved side character get shot so you could have a very unpleasant death scene, that would feel pretty contrived. I’m not, you know…I’m just making that example up off the top of my head. I’m just saying it would be a terrible idea.

Chris: No, that was the worst.

Fay: We’re definitely not talking about Buffy, right?

Oren: Who’s talking about Buffy here, like literally no one.

Fay: Right. Anytime you break a pattern that you already have going in the story or a genre pattern, that’s going to make it feel contrived. So being consistent, and establishing for your own stories, if characters can hold onto ledges for exactly two minutes, you’ve got to have some way of showing that in your story and being consistent about it; otherwise, just don’t have that be how the character dies, because it will feel contrived.

Chris: I will say that there sometimes is call in stories to have a death that is tragic. At the same time, use the minimum level of negative emotions necessary to pull off what you need to pull off. We talked recently when we covered Picard about the death of Icheb that made fans really mad and they did it as a motivation for Seven to get revenge, right? This is what they said, but it was just way out of proportion. First of all, she faces the character that she needs to get revenge against in one episode. It’s not a whole season arc. And, for that, audiences only really need to understand her motivation. Seeing her arrive too late to save a character that they didn’t know, that was important to her, without a gratuitous death scene where a beloved side character is made helpless and dies in terrible pain. That’s just way out of proportion with what it’s supposed storytelling purpose was. And that makes it feel very contrived. You’re just making the audience feel terrible for no reason. It’s not even realistic in the scene.

Oren: There is a very good YouTube video that will show you why you shouldn’t do this. It is in the pitch meeting series by Ryan George. It is his X-Men 3…I forget what it’s called…but the third X-Men film video, and the premise is that a writer is pitching this film to a producer. And he’s talking about all of the characters he is killing because a bunch of characters die super randomly in X-Men 3 and the producer asks why are you killing that character? And the writer says, because I’m a big boy. But I thought that was why you killed the last character to show that you were a big boy. No, but I’m killing this character because I’m a big boy. And that is how I picture every author who does nonsensical, super-overwrought character death like the one we saw in Picard with Icheb. I just picture you sounding like that. And that’s what you come across as, when you do stuff like that. So don’t. It doesn’t make you clever, or edgy, or, you know, pushing the envelope or whatever, it just makes you insufferable.

Chris: Yeah. I will say that in some of these stories, like in the Marvel franchise, sometimes there are character deaths because we are claiming that a group of protagonists is facing life threatening situations again, and again, and again. And after a while, it increasingly feels contrived when they all come up through it okay.

And, I’m not going to recommend a solution for Marvel. They can deal with what they’ve created, but I will say that if you are writing a book where you’re having that problem, it definitely starts with prevention. And thinking about how you are setting up your conflicts and what the stakes are, and making sure that you have a larger variety of stakes besides just life and death and building up to it. You can have stakes about important places being destroyed, about groups being disbanded, about people losing their freedoms. There’s just lots of important stakes that you can have besides, time and time again, throughout the book, putting your protagonist in a life threatening situation where you feel you have to bail them out, and then over time it starts to look really contrived that nobody has died.

Oren: Another thing that I’ll say on that is one of the times when it is appropriate to kill characters—or I should say main characters—is if you’re doing stories about how war sucks. Basically, that’s a really big one, because if you’re doing a story about how dark and terrible war is, and only nameless soldiers die, or a soldier whose name we just learned, or whatever, that just feels like you aren’t actually committed. That just feels like you are putting these shields around the characters you like and exporting all of the suffering to other people who don’t matter. And that’s just not a great thing to do.
I’m not saying you have to write a story about how war is dark and it sucks, but if you do, then you should probably be prepared to kill at least one significant character because otherwise it’s just going to feel tonally jarring.

Chris: I would say that if you feature a war as the climax in your story, I think that’s an appropriate situation to kill somebody just because if you don’t I think it will feel kind of cheap and unrealistic, but also just comes a little too close to glorifying war because war is a huge tragedy. And pretending like it’s a fun romp is just something that makes me uncomfortable.

Recently, She-Ra, for instance, on Netflix. A great series. I enjoyed it. It told a light war story, but I didn’t actually think that was a good idea. They, of course, had the legacy of the previous She-Ra to deal with. With the conflict that came with. So they just made the best out of it. But I think that She-Ra would have been much better suited to not a war story, especially since in many of the episodes, they weren’t even willing to show their protagonists failing. So the war—even throughout the show—feels really unreal.

Oren: Yeah. Even Avatar has that problem sometimes. I love Avatar, but when they get into these fights, because they—on some of them, I think—are aware of the problem. I was just talking about where they don’t want to make their show super dark, so they don’t have a bunch of random extras getting killed. But as a result, you end up with these weird battles where everyone is fine, always. And that seems wrong, somehow. Even though I know the mood you’re going for, and I know this is a show for children. I’m not really sure what the solution to that is.

Chris: We should just look for other conflicts, right? I think that making war into a fun romp is not the best idea. And we don’t have to sell kids on war stories, my personal take. But generally I think that those stories would be better suited to something else. I love Avatar the Last Airbender and it did pretty well with the topic it has, I’m not going to deny that, but yeah, when it comes to selling war to kids…

But sometimes there are stories, as Oren said, where mostly we see a lot of storytellers who think that they have to tell something super grimdark and, you know, explicit, in order to send a serious message, but that’s just not true. If you want to go grimdark it’s usually because you really are advertising to a very niche audience who likes that, and it’s not mainstream, it’s niche. Most people, I would say, probably are not into the Game of Thrones level of dark. You would call it realism, but in this case, all realism actually means in Game of Thrones is the fact that George R. R. Martin establishes early on in the story that he’s not going to follow standard storytelling conventions about who dies. Which signals to the reader that anyone, any character in the story could die, which gives a sense of tense realism.

I think that’s an experience that some audiences are going to appreciate. And that’s the thing to do. I just, I think that too many storytellers think that they have to go in that direction or else their story isn’t serious when really that is a very niche thing.

Fay: I think that’s also another great example of a storyteller establishing in their world, in their series, this is how we’re going to handle these sorts of situations. So it’s clear to readers what that pattern is. So that again, the deaths that do happen don’t feel as contrived because you established this is how this is going to be, and you’re being consistent within that.

Chris: I think another really common pattern I see between stories that are using death well and are using it kind of in a gratuitous manner. We talked a little bit about characters being empowered about their own death. But I think also whether the protagonist is empowered to save other people is also really important, like in the death of Icheb. We have Seven arrives too late. It’s just impossible to save. And I think a lot of stories that use death really gratuitously, always have this element of inevitability where people don’t die because the hero failed, people just die and that’s just how it is. And we have death everywhere. I think it also feels like it’s just being used as window dressing. It’s not actually meaningful to the plot, if you can’t change it. It’s superfluous if it’s not an actual outcome of what the hero did.

Fay: A lot of it is it doesn’t feel like it fits in the plot in the same way that other character deaths feel like a natural part of the plot because it came directly out of key aspects of the plot and conflicts in it. And also that connection to the agency of the main character.

Oren: I do think that we should probably talk about the way that marginalization can affect character death, since that’s important. We’ve been talking about it largely from a technical angle, but it gets more complicated when your characters have various marginalized traits. Queerness is probably the most well-known because we have a whole trope called ‘burying your gays’ which applies to, of course, all manner of queer people, not just gay men.

I get questions on Mythcreants all the time that ask, can I kill a gay character this way, with this context, and not be using that trope? And, you know, “probably not” is honestly the answer. At this point, the trope is kind of fuzzy because it’s not like a bunch of people got together and voted on what the trope was. It’s something that has emerged in reaction to a lot of existing trends. And so as a result, reactions to it are not a hundred percent pre-defined, like within a set of rules. There isn’t ‘the committee of gay burying’ that you can talk to. In general, especially if you yourself are straight, I would just say, don’t do it. Most cases, it’s probably just easier, rather than trying to find that one scenario that will let you thread the needle, I’d say just don’t.

Chris: I will say the other thing that’s always tricky about answering these subjective situations where it’s like, but all of my characters are gay and then I have more, you know, is that a lot of these standards are evolving based on what stories are out there and what representation exists. It’s not always possible for us to keep on top of the nuances of these situations and what the changing standards are. As queer people get more representation in stories, I think that some of that will over time loosen up a little bit, and there will be more freedom to tell different kinds of storylines about queer people without being upsetting.

But it’s hard to judge exactly where that is and if you’re not sure, the best thing you can do is, you know, queer people sometimes want to know this thing too, right? Being plugged into the community and just talking to other queer people. If this is storyline writing and getting beta readers and seeing how they feel, it’s ultimately the best judge of this situation. It’s hard to exactly define a situation in which that’s okay. Oren’s right that the safest thing is just to avoid that stuff for a while. Until we have so many queer characters that everyone feels a lot better about it.

Fay: I would say with this trope that there are worse ways of doing it and better ways of doing it. But the issue is that it all started with the fact that there was a rule around with books where you couldn’t have the queer characters end the story in a healthy romance together. Someone had to die or something because there was actual gatekeeping around stories. And that was the only way to write queer stories for a while. So a lot of it is, yeah, it’s worse if they’re the only queer characters in the story. It’s worse if you do it right after they get back together and you don’t even get the satisfaction of them being together.

There’s a lot of worse ways of doing it. But the whole point is that there aren’t enough stories where there’s a happy ending for a queer person in a romance. And the big thing is having that at the end, so that it’s like you imagine them going off into the sunset together, right? There’s that happy ending, this implication of hope and a life and a future. That’s the biggest aspect of this. So it doesn’t matter how you kill them. Although there are worse ways to kill them. But the fact of having a future, an imagined future for the characters, that is the biggest thing that people want is that future. It’s very much more rare than it should be. If you have a gay-topia thing where everyone’s gay and you do a tragic death, that is a noble sacrifice or whatever, you could probably get away with that in that scenario. But again, the big thing is there’s a hunger for these futures, for characters to have futures.

Oren: And even if you’re dealing with some aspects of marginalization other than queerness, you really have to consider the numbers game at that point. If you have only two black characters in a cast of 10, you probably don’t want to kill one of them. Just don’t do it at that point. Your story’s already too white. I’m not entirely bitter about Wells on The 100, but I am pretty bitter about it. So, you know, stuff like that, there are more specific tropes, like black guy dies first, or refrigerator girlfriend, et cetera, et cetera. If there’s a TV Tropes page for it, you probably don’t want to do it is how I would take that guiding principle.

Chris: I think it’s also good to remind storytellers that karmic deaths are a big thing where many stories choose side characters to die based on a subjective interpretation of whether that character deserves it. And this is just a pattern that happens and audiences pick up on it. So when you choose to kill a character early, especially, in the story, especially in a way that doesn’t empower that character, it does look like a judgment has been cast about moral disapproval on that character. So just think about that for a little bit, and whether you want to be casting that judgment and want to be seen as basically declaring that character is lesser when you kill off that character early, especially in a non-empowered way.

Fay: And in particular, I would like to tell people to please stop killing disabled people full stop. Because to be honest, there is this idea that it’s better to be dead than be disabled. There are actually prominent disability activists who will go to conferences and speak with people. And they’ll actually have people in conversation with them, these people who are super prominent in their field, very successful life, all of these things, people will literally tell them, If I were you, I would kill myself.

It is that bad. It is that bad that YouTube videos of disabled children will have comments on them about how the kid should have been aborted or something. We are really at a very bad space in terms of disability. And a lot of people feeling like it’s better to be dead and not understanding how much disabled people can have happy, wonderful fulfilling lives. Part of that is how disabled characters are killed in media and how they’re portrayed in general as their entire life being about disability, of course, and other aspects of that, but just stop killing disabled people, especially in ways that imply that there’s somehow merciful aspects to this. It’s a real problem.

Chris: It’s another thing that those storytellers who want to be edgy sometimes reach for. They take this character and say, Oh, look, this character is disabled and now they want to die. No, that’s the worst thing that you could do. That’s one of the most problematic tropes that you can ever depict.

Oren: You’re not a big boy. Stop it.

Fay: Yeah. Yeah.

Chris: That’s just the worst.

Fay: I do also want to quickly add: romantic partners of marginalized characters, even if they’re a straight white man, will actually count as part of representation because, for example, interracial relationships? Not as common in media as they should be, still very controversial. Distressingly controversial, I will say, which is why Walsh’s death in Serenity was so upsetting on many levels, but because that’s a really happy, healthy interracial relationship, killing him is more negative, even though he’s a straight white man, because we’re removing this representation of a healthy romance and a happy ending.

Chris: Yeah. And I will say that there are some marginalized characters, some representation that just rarely get romances.

Fay: Yes.

Chris: They are never depicted as having a romance. It could be that just representing a romance with a person with a certain type of marginalization could be really meaningful. And so killing the love interest could take that away.

Fay: Exactly. Exactly. I’m going to add one more quick note when it comes to disability in particular. Please double-check that the character you’re going to kill is actually not marginalized. There are a lot of characters that people create that are, I would say, accidentally disabled, which is basically the creator didn’t intend to make someone disabled, but because they went with a really exaggerated character trait, they actually created someone who’s disabled.

So a lot of this comes with humor characters that are like, Oh, this humor character is completely unable to do social interactions in ways that anyone who’s neurotypical would be able to do it. And they’re just portrayed as comically socially inept. And actually, if this person is actually someone who’s brain does not process social interactions in the way that anyone else’s brain does around them, they’re actually disabled. This is a disability and you’re actually making the disabled character, whether you intended to or not.

Oren: I think that will probably be our note to end the podcast, actually. Cause you know, we tend to go a little long on some of these topics…

Fay: Whenever I’m on the podcast, you mean?

Oren: I wasn’t going to say that, but…

Fay: Because I bring at least two episodes worth of ideas.

Oren: So many notes! Could have done a whole ‘nother podcast on your written notes. All right. So if anything we said, those of you at home, piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is a urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. Finally, we have Denita Rambo, and she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.

[closing theme]

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Comments

  1. Jeppsson

    Regarding that “big boy” stuff… Have you read Grant Morrisson’s run on Animal Man from 1988-1990?

    It starts out as a pretty normal superhero story. Animal Man becomes an animal rights activist and this is his thing, but the narrative is fairly straight-forward. Then there’s a bad guy who murders his wife and children, and he goes on this quest to find out who’s responsible… which gradually gets weirder and more surreal.
    He meets people who seem to know stuff he doesn’t, and, for instance, dismiss a mass killing with “Who cares? They weren’t people, just side characters. They didn’t have lives or personalities, they didn’t even have names.” Animal man is like WTF?

    Eventually he learns that he’s a comic book hero, breaks the fourth wall and finds Grant Morrisson who writes the series. He confronts him about the death of his family, and asks why he did this. An Morrisson doesn’t have a good reply. He’s like uh… comic books… are supposed to be more realistic nowadays? So, IDK, people have to be murdered in grisly ways? Um…
    Then Morrisson regrets what he’s done and writes Animal Man’s family back to life again.

    Later on, Morrisson has really made a lot of very hopeful, very bright superhero stories… like people can get killed, in gruesome ways even, but he tends towards really hopeful endings. When he got to do Superman Allstar, that was like the lightest and most optimistic superhero story ever! But Animal Man was pretty early in his career, he wasn’t that big a name yet. So I wonder whether he actually felt pressured into killing off Animal Man’s family or something similar, in order to be a “serious” comic book writer, but then fought back.

    • SunlessNick

      Damn, I’m glad I never read that. I mean I approve of the point it’s illustrating, but as a storytelling device, 4th wall breaking grates on me intensely.

      • Jeppsson

        I did feel it had aged a bit – this was surely more groundbreaking in 1990. Still, I appreciated that AA had this entire quest where the endgame was to break the fourth wall. It wasn’t just thrown in like a lazy gag or something.

  2. Jeppsson

    Re killing of marginalized characters… I do think it has to be a number’s game at the end of the day. Have enough characters from a certain demographic, and one of them could make, say, a heroic sacrifice or be murdered, and it’s fine if it serves the plot.

    I’m killing off a man who uses a mechanized exoskeleton to walk. However, for in-universe reasons, I have a lot of characters who uses wheelchairs or exoskeletons. One of my MC:s dads is in a wheelchair with left-side paralysis and narcolepsy after a stroke, and he’s fine throughout the whole story. Her other dad starts using a wheelchair on-off some distance into the story, he’s also fine. I have a somewhat sinister mentor character in a wheelchair and they’re fine, and there’s mention in passing of minor characters using exosceletons to assist in old age and/or for moving around swiftly without tiring. Finally, there’s this powerful oppressor who also walks assisted by an exoskeleton, and at one point is shot dead in an uprising by the people he oppressed.

    I COULD make him perfectly able-bodied, do a rewrite without the exoskeleton… But I was thinking, given how many characters use mobility devices, he’s not gonna be perceived as “this disabled character” but more as “this powerful oppressive character”.

  3. SunlessNick

    Right. Isn’t the murder victim usually someone that you don’t know super well?

    Chrsitie’s murder victims are also often assholes to the point where the reader is not particularly sad to see them go. (This is convenient for generating suspects).

    And I can handle this grief and the story isn’t as dark. It’s more hopeful.

    I find the darkness in Christie’s novels is usually in the subplots – well, maybe more sordidness than darkness – but in the secrets that get uncovered along the way to solving the central murder.

    I’m not, you know…I’m just making that example up off the top of my head.

    I did stop watching Buffy over Tara.* (By that point I was disliking most of the characters a lot, and Tara was one of the only exceptions) (also on a technical note, if you’re trying for a grimly realistic death, don’t use a shot that’s ballistically impossible).

    * I did watch a couple of episodes because I want a look at a few things I’d seen being mentioned, but I never saw the majority of season 7.

    • Cay Reet

      Well, there is one Agatha Christie story where the murder victim is a young girl (“Halloween”), but even that girl has a character which makes it easy to say ‘she had it coming’ to a degree.

      There’s darkness in the subplots, the secrets nobody wants exposed etc. Sometimes, the darkness also comes out in the solution (like with killing a girl who had done nothing bad just to place her in someone’s rooms in “The Body in the Library”). By then, however, we’ve dealt with most of the shock and the grief.

    • LeeEsq

      I wouldn’t call Christie’s stories as being necessarily dark. A really big chunk of her appeal back when she was alive and now was the genteel interbellum setting with all the best of the traditional UK, the gentry, the parties, and houses but the conveniences of early to mid-20th century life. A lot of modern adaptations of Christie believe they have to up the darkness level for modern audiences.

      • SunlessNick

        That’s why I added the sordid. She may be depicting that world, but that depiction can be pretty cynical. Miss Marple’s best line is still “It’s very dangerous to believe people. I haven’t done it for years” – that’s a line you’d expect from a hardboiled gumshoe.

  4. Alicia

    My contrived death pet peeve is when you have a group of characters who have a motto that they never leave anyone behind, no matter how impossible the circumstances might look, but then the writer decides a character needs to die and the others characters are like ‘there’s no way we can save this person’ despite having saved many people in equally improbable circumstances before. It feels like the author just changed the rules so that the character could die.

  5. Innocent Bystander

    There’s an issue I had with a death in Demon Slayer/Kimetsu no Yaiba. Not the death itself; I feel that it worked because it establishes how much more powerful the villains are and how outclassed the heroes are at that point, as well as reminding the audience that death is a possibility (up to this point, only nameless slayers were killed). Plus, the guy dies protecting a train full of people, which isn’t a bad way to go. My problem was that the character had just enough established about him to be interesting and get the audience to care about him, but wasn’t able to explore that enough before being killed.

  6. Ems

    I always thought the take of “Buffy should have stayed dead and a robot should have taken her place” was a weird one lol. I’ve never minded her resurrection or even the depression that followed, the problem was more that the show threw all of that angst at us at once with Tara dying, Anya and Xander breaking up, Spike and Buffy’s mutually abusive relationship… too much all at once. I’ve always felt that season would have been much better if Spike had gotten his soul between season 5-6 instead, allowing for his arc to be mostly worked through in season 6 and then season 7 would have had more space to fully develop it’s ideas, instead of having to rush through all his baggage in one season and then clumsily going back to it when he reappeared on Angel. But nah, it’s more important to watch everyone suffer for a season, right? Whedon’s “I’m a big boy” mindset seriously hampered that show, particularly in the later seasons. It’s a shame, because we had good deaths with Jenny and Joyce that felt right and earned and not just like cheap shock value. But Tara’s death was just awful and blatant and unnecessary, I think Whedon even said he’d always wanted to kill a character in the same episode they got onto the opening credits. And guess which episode Tara finally graduated to main credits? Honestly, the amount of money I’d give to rewrite “Seeing Red” myself…
    Granted, Kendra’s death sucked too, so not all early Buffy deaths were winners. Like, yeah, lets kill the only non-white character in the cast and while we’re at it, the person who killed her is gonna get off scot-free 🤪. Great idea guys, really.

    • SunlessNick

      I once pondered a season 5 ending where it’s Spike who dies rather than Buffy – instead of the realisation that Dawn’s blood is also Summers blood, the realisation that there’s more than one way to give Dawn’s blood to the gate.

      • Ems

        Interesting idea! I’ll grant that I’d have been disappointed if it had happened, as though I acknowledge the many fumbles in his arc, I generally really like Spike… granted, when he dies in season 7, they just brought him back anyways so I guess he wouldn’t have to stay dead. Buffyverse plays fast and loose with death when men are involved only, for some strange reason

  7. Julia M

    This goes for neurodivergent people, too.

    We usually get pidgeonholed into a few roles.
    One: the dead weight. Usually in horror movies, the neurodivergent person is no help, and actively hinders everybody. As an autistic person who has met other autistic people, I can tell you from experience that we usually know when there is danger.
    SPOILER FOR BURING BRIGHT
    Example, Burning Bright: This movie (basically Jaws with a tiger) has an 11 year old austistic kid who causes his sister to have to rescue him, putting her in danger.

    Two: the fridged one. The neurodivergent person is killed to provide horror to an (assumed neurotypical) audience, or to cause another person to feel bad. Usually a side character, since a neurodivergent main character would presumably cause a mass epidemic of heart attacks.
    MINOR SPOILER FOR VENOM
    Example, Venom: The homeless lady (not said to be neurodivergent, but clearly is) who Eddie Brock is friends with experimented with and killed.

    Three :The noble sacrifice. Neurodivergent person gives their life to save the others, who are usually neurotypical.
    MAJOR SPOILER FOR GONE SERIES
    Example, Gone: A great series in many ways, but the autistic character, 5 year old Little Pete, sacrifices himself to save everybody else. To make it worse, in the previous books, he loses his autism, and at the end, his parents are both sad and “relieved” that he is dead. Ouch.

    Four: the burden: The neurodivergent person is an obstacle keeping the protagonist from moving forward, either by obligation, or because they need to be taken care of. Very insidious, especially since, when disabled children are murdered in real life, people focus on the fact that disabled children are a “burden” to take care of. This could be acceptable if it showcases how the support for disabled families is so little in real life, but if not, don’t do this.
    MINOR SPOILER FOR BURNING BRIGHT(AGAIN)
    Example: Burning bright: In this movie, the protagonist wants to go to college, but she needs someone to take care of her autistic brother. If she can’t find a place for him, she will lose her scholarship. Made worse by the fact that he is not nuanced, and treated like an object.

    Two of these tropes end in death, and two can be resolved by death. All these tropes can be applied in media to physically disabled people, too.

    Remember, don’t kill a marginalized character unless you have a good reason… or die.

    • Bellis

      Yes, totally! This is super important.

      Things you could do instead include showing neurodivergent characters supporting each other and their neurotypical friends/(chosen) family. This could either be independent of their neurodivergence (they struggle with it in many areas of their live, but their parenting isn’t one of those areas), hindered by it (for example a depressed character occasionally being able to marshal what little energy they have to care for others while neglecting themselves) or helped by their neurodivergence (like supporting someone through mental health struggles they have lived through or are currently also going through. Be careful about depicting mental illnesses or disabilities as superpoweres though.)

      And in general make your neurodivergent or otherwise marginalized characters three-dimensional, give them motivations, goals, flaws, strengths, agency just like any other character.

      Do your research to avoid misrepresentations which are usually both boring and harmful stereotypes.

      You could either subvert stereotypes or just write a neurodivergent character like it’s no big deal, normalising them.

  8. Prince Infidel

    This was a particularly good episode. I’d like to see this as a sort of unofficial (or official if you want, I’m not your dad) series of podcast episodes where a couple of times a year, you revisit a topic from Mythcreant past.

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