Analysis

Six Pointless Deaths in Spec Fic

Many people are familiar with the character shield and plot-armor tropes: those points in a story where it really feels like a character should die, but the writer won’t let them. It turns out that many stories have the opposite issue: a character dies for no reason. This problem can be as big, but it isn’t as well understood. Too often, fans who don’t like a character’s death are written off as just being overly attached.

But fans should be attached to characters, and if a death doesn’t add anything to the story, then it’s a mistake. Since so many storytellers are still obsessed with making their stories as grimdark as possible, we have plenty of examples to choose from.

Spoilers: Crescent City, Middlegame, and The Priory of the Orange Tree

1. Lehabah: Crescent City

A crow from the cover art of Crescent City

Crescent City is a novel with fantastic worldbuilding and terrible plotting. Some of that plotting comes to a head near the end of the book, when Lehabah the fire sprite performs a heroic sacrifice to help protagonist Bryce.

First, the scene’s construction makes it clear this sacrifice is totally unnecessary. A wounded Bryce is trying to escape through a reinforced door before the bad guy catches up to her when Lehabah proclaims that she’ll stay behind to buy Bryce time. But the door is right there. Bryce doesn’t need more time; they can both easily escape. Worse, Bryce loses way more time arguing with Lehabah than could possibly be gained by the sacrifice.*

The argument goes on for several paragraphs, which is an eternity in fight scene terms. Once Bryce finally gives up, Lehabah has to go through a long speech about all her reasons for doing this, which makes it even more apparent that Bryce had plenty of time to escape on her own. Finally, Lehabah jumps into action, but she doesn’t even attack the villain. Instead, she melts open a big tank of water, which kills her and delays the villain for a few seconds at most. This is also weird because, as a fire spirit, I assumed Lehabah could shoot fire to melt the tank open from a safe distance. Though the book never specifically says she can do that, it just seemed logical given her other powers.

With some work, it would have been possible to revise this scene so that Lehabah’s sacrifice is actually necessary. Keeping the long argument and monologue would be a tall order, but if our goal were to create a scenario where Lehabah had to die to stop the bad guy, it’s doable. Even so, that wouldn’t solve the scene’s dramatic shortcomings.

You see, there’s no storytelling reason for Lehabah to die here. She doesn’t have any bad karma to pay off or any other character arc to finish, for that matter. Killing her doesn’t make the villain more threatening, as he’s already killed a number of far stronger characters. For the same reason, Lehabah’s death doesn’t increase tension. In fact, as the least prominent member of the main group, her death has almost no impact at all. There’s certainly no character development for Bryce here; the narrative quickly moves on to other problems. The only thing Lehabah’s death accomplishes is to draw out a boss fight that was already too long,* and to annoy anyone who actually liked her.

2. Madison: Supernatural

Madison and Sam from Supernatural

There are more than three hundred episodes of Supernatural, and lots of them feature pointless character deaths, but I’m going to focus on the season two episode Heart, brought to you by 2007’s finest LiveJournal edgelords. Heart holds a special place in my heart for waking me up to the fact that this show just doesn’t like women very much.*

The episode starts simply enough: Sam and Dean are hunting a werewolf named Madison on account of how she keeps killing people during the nights around a full moon. But then there’s a twist: Madison has no control over her transformations, and at first she doesn’t even know anything is amiss. In all this confusion, Sam and Madison manage to fall in love, or at least in lust. They proceed to get busy.

To the Winchester boys’ credit, they don’t love the idea of killing Madison for something beyond her control. They try to cure her, and it seems to work for one night, but then she’s suddenly a werewolf again. Since the episode is almost over, Dean and Madison both decide that death is the only option. Also, Sam has to do it. There are a lot of tears, and the episode ends on an offscreen gunshot because that’s artistic, I guess.

Right away, we have practical problems. First, the cure actually worked for one night, but then stopped working, and the brothers don’t seem to think that’s worth investigating. Dean has a line about how maybe it only worked because Madison didn’t go to sleep that night, but that’s hardly satisfying. Second, they act like locking Madison up on transformation nights is impossible, but that’s clearly not true. In just this episode, we see Sam keep her contained inside a closet.

While Sam and Dean do spend some time looking for a way to cure Madison, they don’t give any thought to the possibility of managing her condition. If that was the point of the episode and it hadn’t worked, then maybe the tragedy could have been effective, since their conclusion would have lined up with what actually happened in the episode. Although now that I say it like that, it sounds like a parallel for disability, and that probably wouldn’t be good either.

Instead, we have Sam execute his lover, and for what? The angst is gone by the next episode, and frankly we’ve already spent over a season watching Sam grieve for a lost girlfriend. We didn’t need more.

3. Smita: Middlegame

Fingers of a Hand of Glory from Middlegame's cover art.

Regular Mythcreants readers can probably tell that I don’t care much for Seanan McGuire’s Hugo-nominated novel about two alchemically engineered twins. We did a whole podcast about it, but today I’m only looking at one aspect of the story: the death of Smita Mehta. Smita is a fairly minor side character, and yet her murder manages to be a serious low point in a story that was already struggling.

The premise is simple: through her research, Smita discovers a small part of the villain’s plan.* She doesn’t know what she’s found yet, but the bad guy can’t have this info getting out, so he sends an assassin named Erin to silence Smita. Erin is already posing as Smita’s friend, and she also has plans to betray the villain. But it’s too early to act on those plans, so she has no choice but to carry out the assignment.

So far, this isn’t actually a bad setup. Part of Erin’s character arc is regret for all the horrible things she’s been forced to do in the villain’s service, and seeing one of those acts could help readers invest in that arc. What makes it feel pointless is how the scene is milked for every drop of angst, even when it doesn’t make sense.

Before the murder, Erin needs to find out if Smita has shared the research with anyone else. Since Erin is a brilliant actor* and Smita thinks they’re friends, you might expect a subtle approach. Erin could show interest in Smita’s work, then work up to the big question. Once it’s clear Smita has the only copy, Erin can quietly dispatch her friend. That is not what happens.

Instead, Erin opens the encounter by telling Smita horrifying stories about how Erin is totally going to murder her, thus ensuring that Smita spends her last few moments in abject terror. Erin then moves on to threats, saying she’ll torture Smita if information about who else has the research isn’t forthcoming. Smita says she has the only copy, but just like real torture, Erin has no way to test whether that’s true. In fact, Smita now has every reason to lie, since she knows Erin will kill anyone else who’s seen the research. Maybe Erin is supposed to have magical lie-detecting powers, but those would have worked even better with a kinder approach.

The scene is so long and drawn out; it’s difficult to believe Erin’s protestations that she doesn’t want to do this. Surely, if she didn’t, she would have taken one of the many other options available to her. It gives the impression that Erin is playing a sick game with Smita, which is exactly the opposite of what we’re supposed to take from it. Worse, all this angst doesn’t make Smita’s death any more tragic than it already was. All it does is make the reader hate Erin and create a lot of pointless unpleasantness. Also, it was not a great idea to kill off a woman of color in a cast that’s otherwise extremely white. Even if the scene had been handled better, that would have been a mistake.

4. Airiam: Star Trek Discovery

Airiam and Tilly from Star Trek Discovery

Take the ship to grimdark alert, because it’s time to talk about the first show in CBS’s plan to flood their streaming service with endless Star Trek. Discovery has a number of questionable deaths,* and even more sections of over-the-top angst, like the time they tortured Burnham to death to summon a time traveler. But today, we focus on just one instance: the death of Lieutenant Commander Airiam.

For most of seasons one and two, the cyborg bridge officer is kept entirely in the background. Then, in the episode Project Daedalus, we suddenly have a bunch of backstory and relationship scenes for her. Anyone who’s watched more than a few episodes of TV knows what that means: Airiam is doomed.

Indeed, a few scenes later, Airiam gets hacked by the villain and attacks the other characters. She’s trying to upload a bunch of data that the villain needs to complete their evil plan. The good guys manage to trap Airiam in an airlock, and after a lot of anguished yelling, they eject her into space. Sad, but it had to be done, right? It was a classic case of sacrificing one for the good of the many.

Not so much. For one thing, Burnham is standing outside the airlock with a phaser rifle. Airiam seems resistant to the stun setting, but even a full power shot to the chest would have given her a better chance of survival than getting spaced. Star Trek medicine is pretty advanced, and they could have beamed her directly to sickbay… Oh right, the transporter. They could have just beamed Airiam into a holding cell at any time. They didn’t even bother to throw in a line about how the transporter is broken this week.

Look, forgetting about the transporter is one of the Star Trekkiest things you can do. But most other episodes where this happens don’t also make me listen to Burnham’s anguished screams as she begs the captain not to kill Airiam, while Airiam begs to die. Yeah, the actors did a bit too good a job that time. If a show is going to demand I experience that level of emotional distress, the least it can do is get its transporter ducks in a row.

Beyond the practical issues, Airiam’s death doesn’t feel meaningful. In fact, the sudden focus on her backstory makes the whole thing contrived. If the only time you develop a side character is right before her death, then the audience has no time to get attached. Instead, it feels awkward because the show is taking time away from the more important characters. Plus, if the audience can predict that a side character will die because of a random surge in screen time, then the death doesn’t even raise tension. It’s obvious that won’t happen to anyone we actually care about.

5. Susa: The Priory of the Orange Tree

A dragon from Priory's cover art.

Back in the land of prose, we have a death that’s somewhat unusual. It’s not pointless because of anything in the death itself, but rather because the book doesn’t follow up on what could have been a serviceable arc. It all starts with Tané, dragon rider in training, a character whose schtick is not ever learning from the consequences of her actions.

Tané’s country has a policy that nearly all foreigners are banned on pain of death, which becomes relevant for Tané when she meets one of those foreigners while out for a swim. This is a problem not because Tané has any qualms about turning in a man to be executed, but because she’s not supposed to be out swimming. She’s supposed to be in religious seclusion, and if she gets caught, it might cost her the chance to be a dragon rider. She also doesn’t want to let the foreigner wander free because of a mistaken belief that he carries plague.

Naturally, Tané hits upon an elaborate scheme: she recruits her friend Susa to deliver the foreigner to a stranger’s house, convince the stranger to take the foreigner in, then make an anonymous tip to the police. This will probably result in the deaths of both the foreigner and the stranger for helping him, but at least Tané’s dragon riding career will continue uninterrupted, and that’s what’s really important.

So Tané clearly has some likability problems, but that’s not actually my point. Fast forward to later, when the police have figured out Susa’s part in this plan. They bring her in, torture her for a bit, then force Tané to watch as Susa is executed. The cops know that Tané was in on the plan, too, but by then she’s an important dragon rider, so they can’t touch her directly.

Ideally, this scene would be a catalyst for Tané to realize how bad the foreigner ban is. Failing that, it could lead to Tané’s realizing she needs to be less selfish, since putting her needs above others has now led to her friend’s death. Instead we get neither. Tané barely considers the laws which mandated all these deaths, even though her dragon goes on at length about how evil they are. Tané does feel bad about Susa’s death for a while, but then she meets an old monk who convinces her to stop being so hard on herself for a little thing like getting her friend killed.*

In Tané’s next plotline, she decides to keep a precious magical artifact to herself so that she can hopefully use it to complete a glorious quest. This is despite the fact that the proper authorities would be able to make much better use of the artifact. She goes on the quest to redeem herself, but it’s for an entirely different problem that wasn’t even her fault.* This sequence reads eerily similar to the scene when she roped Susa into a dangerous plan to benefit her career. This time Tané’s scheme works out, and she gets everything she wanted. Since Tané never learns from her mistakes, I’m left wondering why the author had me read a bloody description of Susa being decapitated.

6. Data: Star Trek Picard

Brent Spiner looking confused.

This last entry takes the cake for pointless deaths because of how bizarre it is. Like Discovery, Picard has several ill-advised character deaths and plenty of excessive grimdark, but none of it can compare to what happens in the finale’s last few minutes.

First, we find out that Data has been alive all this time. Surprise! It’s just as random as it sounds. Picard’s plot focuses a lot on androids, but not on Data specifically. He died back in the film Nemesis, and this show doesn’t do anything to make you think otherwise. There’s no foreshadowing that he might be alive, nor does the reveal close up any plot arcs. We just find out that some side characters have been keeping Data’s personality alive in a simulation for years, even though they can make android bodies. Did they offer Data one? Who knows!

Then, just as you’re trying to figure all this out, Data dies! He gives Picard a few lines about how being able to live forever would make him not a person, somehow, and then they turn off his simulation. Hold on, Data, maybe try one of these shiny new bodies we have? I get it if you don’t want to live forever, but all your friends are still alive, so maybe you’d enjoy life more if you were with them instead of trapped in an empty computer program? No? Sigh.

Even for a show that prided itself on shocking audiences with gruesome deaths, this was a bit much. Data is a fan favorite, rivaling even Jean-Luc Picard in the hearts of Trekkies. For the show to tempt us with his resurrection and then snatch it away was particularly cruel.

And to what purpose? From the dialogue, it sounds like the writers are trying to make a point about mortality defining life, or maybe about assisted suicide, but there’s no time for that. Immortality isn’t a major theme of the show. There’s nothing to lay the groundwork for Data’s choice, not even an ill-fated scientist trying to create the elixir of life. Even if you agree with the idea that immortality cheapens life, Picard’s writers simply weren’t ready for such a fraught topic at the last minute.

The result isn’t anything meaningful. It’s a depressing speed bump that comes just when we’re supposed to be enjoying the first season’s resolution. It’s a classic case of writers trying to do too much and ending up with nothing as a result. In fact, that’s a common thread in all of these stories. Some authors seem to think that killing a character automatically makes the story deeper and more meaningful, but that isn’t true. If you don’t set up a story that actually benefits from a character’s death, all you’ll do is pointlessly alienate anyone who liked that character.

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

Read more about

 

Comments

  1. Dave L

    Is it a coincidence that five of the six are women?

  2. Grady Elliott

    Hoban Washburne from Firefly should be at the top of this list.

  3. SunlessNick

    Heart holds a special place in my heart for waking me up to the fact that this show just doesn’t like women very much.

    My big pointless death in Supernatural was Anna. An angel who’d sided with humanity rturned for a brief arc where she was grabbed up by an angel-reeducation team, and was then sent to kill Sam and Dean, and killed. It really came across as the writers wanting to punish the character for being ahead of the curve they were trying to draw with Castiel.

    Since Erin is a brilliant actor* and Smita thinks they’re friends, you might expect a subtle approach.

    Given the collection of motives you outline, how about something like “I’m sorry, I’m not who you think I am. I work for [villain] – I don’t want to, but I’m stuck. He’s told me to kill you, and we need to make it look like I have – otherwise, he’ll just send someone else.”

    Plus, if the audience can predict that a side character will die because of a random surge in screen time, then the death doesn’t even raise tension.

    An old blog called Fangsforthefantasy called that kind of thing Marginalised Swan Song, since it most often happens to such characters. (They had a lot of good terms – my favourites are Highlander Minority and Dresden Goggles).

  4. Alverant

    Data’s death in Nemesis made me leave Star Trek for years. I was disappointed the next film wasn’t “The Q-est for Data”. I get why Brent wanted the character to die. But there were ways around it.

  5. Jeppsson

    I liked Middlegame way more than you guys, but I agree about Smita’s death. It was… not great.

    And Airiam! First time we watched that episode, we obviously realized she was gonna die when she suddenly got all that backstory. It was done SO badly that it was impossible to take seriously: We kept wailing and mock-crying to the TV, “nooo, not AIRIAM, our FAVOURITE, and we just found out that she was actually best friends with all the other characters, oh noooo, what a blow to them!”

    The whole thing also reminded us of an X-men review by youtuber Linkara. He reviews and makes fun of (mixed with some more serious pop culture criticism too) bad comic books.
    There’s an X-men story where an evil group of mutant-haters have come up with an absolutely bonkers plan, with way too many contradictions and plotholes to count: they plan to make Nightcrawler the new Pope in order to stoke the general public’s hate of mutants. As part of their plan, they murder Father Whitney, a priest whom we’re told Nightcrawler was really close friends with, even though he had like no page-time. And then the comic book made such a big deal out of his death.
    Linkara filmed himself crying, wailing, tearing his hair and being all like “NOOOO… Not Father Whitney! We barely knew you! And now you’re dead! NOOOO it can’t BEEE” etc. And then he put in a photoshopped tombstone with the words “R.I.P Father Whitney. Beloved priest and plot device.”

  6. Sam B

    One way to fix #1 would be to cut out the arguing entirely. Bryce is running, realizes that Lehabah isn’t with her, turns around, and sees Lehabah sacrifice herself. It would have way more impact that way than drawing it out.

    That doesn’t fix everything wrong with the death, but at least it’s not as non-sensical or melodramatic.

  7. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s Note: I’ve removed a comment for breaking our policy on insulting the author, but I do have to say, I find it hilarious that this is the post that someone decided to accuse me of virtue signaling over.

    I think I have one very minor reference to social justice in this post? They could have gone to one of my sexism posts and had way more of a case.

    • Bunny

      “Also, it was not a great idea to kill off a woman of color in a cast that’s otherwise extremely white. Even if the scene had been handled better, that would have been a mistake.”

      Gasp, look at you, Oren! Shame, shame! Bringing attention to a real issue in storytelling in this one small comment? That definitely just means you don’t care about it! Really throwing in the hot takes with that one passing mention!

      In seriousness, though, in case anyone is curious what the person was probably trying to imply, I recommend this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sAmM872874A

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Yeah that’s a great video!

        • Star of Hope

          Hbomberguy is so good at debunking these right-wing fools, they even turned into Straw like Paul Joseph Watson after he failed to to make the case that Soy is bad for you.

          I recommend Hbomberguy, he helped me to cope better with such unhinged opinions.

  8. Julia M.

    Another pointless death is the one in Feed, by Mira Grant. SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST AND SECOND BOOK FOLLOW. In feed, the viewpoint character, George, dies after she’s shot by a dart that contains the virus. However, there doesn’t seem to be a point to it. The POV switches to her brother, but his narration isn’t as good, and we’ve spent the whole book getting used to George. It feels jarring. Also, the villain was revealed at the end, so he could’ve been captured by George. Her death causes some grief issues in the second book, but it doesn’t affect the main plot too much, and part of the grief is a very ableist portrayal of mental illness. Lastly, at the end of the second book, it’s revealed that George has been cloned.

  9. Laura Ess

    As any BUFFY fan knows, it’s simple to lock up your werewolf. Just make the bars and locks tough enough.

    As far as Airiam goes, I think the issue was that CONTROL was infiltrating anything with a computer component. Beaming her to the sickbay isn’t going to change that, and doing so may have put the computer systems in sickbay at risk. I can’t remember if at that point they were aware of the fact that Control was hollowing out humans to make them into cyborg hosts, or not. Either way it was a bit like someone one being assimilated by the Borg. Yes, you CAN recover them, but it would take time and that’s what they didn’t have.

    That said, I would have loved to have got to know Airiam well before that episode. I’d seen the character in the background in s1 and hoped they might feature more. You’re quite right about the extra focus giving away the game about them being killed off. The same principle can be used in certain detective shows (though NOT Elementary) to figure out who the culprit is. Way back in the 70s THE GOODIES did a piss-take on this with one German soldier telling another how he missed his wife and children. The other guard immediately should out “HE’S NOT WITH ME” and runs off!

    Have not got around to seeing PICARD yet (no access to streaming, Discovery was watched on local library DVD sets) , but now I now Data dies (again). Bugger. Thanks for that.

    • SunlessNick

      Speaking of Buffy… TARA!

      • Ems

        lmao, was gonna say; talking about pointless deaths in spec fiction… Tara. Surprised she didn’t make the list, tbh. Her death is made worse in that she proceeded to be replaced with Kennedy, the character who somehow managed to be a clumsier and more unlikeable shoe-horned-in love-interest character than Riley.

  10. Ace of Hearts

    [spoilers for The Hunger Games, if anyone cares.]

    When I think pointless character death, I think Finnick in Mockingjay. It’s completely unnecessary, and I don’t think the story even does much with it.

    Also, sheesh, I had heard that Supernatural was a sexist show, but that’s… bad.

    • Julia M.

      I agree. Some of the deaths feel like Suzanne Collins was like “This isn’t dark enough.” Prim’s death actually moved the plot forward, but Finnick’s didn’t. Also, it was only in this book that we learned about his backstory. (Besides a few tidbits in Catching Fire.)

      • Ace of Hearts

        I’ll be honest, I completely forgot that Prim even died. Sure, it was less pointless than Finnick’s death, but even then it felt tacked on for cheap drama.

        Agree that Collins probably felt like the story needed to be darker… but it really didn’t. That setting is already depressing as it is.

        • Julia M.

          Yeah, I hate it when authors kill their characters for some tacked-on drama. There are other ways to do it, and it’s cheap. Also, it can cause a reader to rage-quit if they liked that character.

          The setting was pretty dark already, and I felt like the final part of the Hunger Games was too depressing. I mean, Katniss was burnt, and her sister died. We also had the epilogue narrated to us instead of shown. It would’ve been nice to see Katniss maybe visiting another district instead of her just telling us it would be okay.

          About Prim’s death, I feel like she was sort of a nothing character, so you only feel sad about her death because of Katniss. If she were anyone else’s sister, I wouldn’t care.

          The tacked-on for cheap drama part may be because it comes out of nowhere. However, I do like [spoiler] that it causes Katniss to realize that Coin is corrupt, and shoot her.

  11. Alex Lund

    I agree with Madison.

    Why didnt they try something like shackles and chains made of silver?
    As far as I remember the fingers of a human are capable of fine manipulation, e.g. keys, while the claws of a werewolf not.
    So, if she would shackle herself then the werewolf-Madison would be no threat to anyone?
    Of course there is also the question: If werewolves are allergic to silver, what if she would wear a necklace of silver all of the time? Or if she would allow someone to put silver in her body, like coating some bones like Wolverine? Wouldnt that inhibit the transformation?

    Unfortunately the writers of shows are known to change the rules for creatures when the plot demands it. Therefore maybe they dont wanted her to survive

    • Cay Reet

      Simply locking her in would be possible – she could even do it herself if the werewolf can’t use keys. Just turn the key in the lock and pull it out. Put it in a drawer or on a board somewhere so it doesn’t get lost and that’s it.

    • Ems

      From what I know about Supernatural’s fandom, it’s likely they did just want an excuse to axe her. They’ve never taken very kindly to most of the female characters on that show.

  12. Erynus

    I have a problem with a death in my book. My MC will kill a character that spent the lenght of the book consistently annoying him and causing troubles. The last straw is when he attacks the MC and he is killed in self defense with extreme prejudice. My problem is i don’t want it to feel too random, when it’s obvious at that point that kill him is not necessary (but it feel so good).
    That death should point the MC to a redemption arc that i don’t think will ever occur as i doubt i’ll have the energy or the skill to write another book after this one.

    • Cay Reet

      If the death doesn’t fulfil an immediate role, you might want not to do it at all. Unless you’re doing the redemption arc in that very book (and, perhaps, it starts soon after the death with the MC wanting to change because of what they did), it will do you no good. Until the next book comes out – if it ever does -, a lot of readers will have forgotten about it. It won’t count then and it doesn’t count now, either.

      Don’t get me wrong … in some of my stories I have quite the body count. The kills count, however, there’s reasons for them. You could either change the kill to something else – severe injury or something similar which removes the character you want to kill – or you give the kill meaning above ‘may or may not lead to a redemption arc.’

      • Erynus

        It happens at the end of the book, when almost all has been said and done. It is just a “my god, what have i done? I need to stop solving problems by killing people” moment. Also to get rid of an obnoxious character that embodies all the worst traits of the protagonist, but up to eleven.
        I want my protagonist to end up as heroic, but until that point is more antihero than anything.

        • Bellis

          It seems like a great setup for a redemption arc! The only problem I see is that you already don’t think you’ll ever write another book after that one (which is reasonable), and it won’t fit into this book either, so there won’t actually BE a redemption arc. I don’t know if heavily implying that the protagonist will seek redemtion and starting on his arc would be enough, it depends on how it fits in with the overall message and tone of the story.

          Ending on an open problem is tricky, especially if you don’t plan on writing a sequel. I could imagine it working if it mirrors the story’s beginning, for example if the protagonist started out wanting to right a wrong and at the end confronts the fact that over time he became as bad as what he initially faught against. But even then, not showing the redemption arc makes it just depressing and misses the chance to show how to overcome this kind of vicious cycle.

Leave a Comment

Please see our comments policy (updated 03/28/20) and our privacy policy for details on how we moderate comments and who receives your information.