Let me start this post off by stating that there will not be any spoilers here. I’m going to talk in general terms with Game of Thrones (GoT) as my example because most people are at least passingly familiar with it, and it’s kind of famous for killing off characters.
So, why does mean old George R.R. Martin kill off so many characters that people seem to genuinely like? The answer is really quite simple: it’s easy.
Read on if you want to find out what the hell I mean by that.
Killing off beloved characters earns an instant reaction
Getting an audience to really love a character (in a realistic way) can be difficult. Continuing to get an emotional response out of the audience after a character has been established is hard. People grow comfortable, and they become familiar with the story and the characters in it.
So, when that complacency begins to kick in, the author needs to do something to maintain interest and induce strong emotional response. The easiest way to do that is to simply kill off the character that they’ve just fallen for.
It’s like an ON/OFF switch. Death is a final and immediate fact of life that everyone is familiar with. When something or someone you care about simply goes away, you naturally have a strong emotional reaction.
One of my English teachers (or professors–I can’t remember which) once told me that the mark of a good story is its ability to elicit some sort of tangible response from the audience. Think of a book that makes you laugh or cry aloud and you’ll know what I mean.
Wielding death like an emotional boom stick, George R.R. Martin keeps his audience engaged by toying with their feelings. You get pissed off, or angry, or upset while reading the books or watching the show, which creates a stronger memory in your brain. Because of the strong imprint, you share your frustration with your friends, who hear so much about the show or books that they get curious about GoT to check it out, thus growing his audience.
It doesn’t make Martin a bad man
I’m not saying that this makes George a bad guy, or even a bad writer. All I’m saying is that this is the easy way out.
To me, the idea of getting a similar level of emotional reaction out of the audience whilst keeping the most beloved characters alive, is much more challenging (and thus, more rewarding).
Here’s what I mean (minor and WELL KNOWN spoilers to follow–I lied a little in the intro, sorry):
In Harry Potter, Harry, Ron, and Hermione all survive.
In The Hobbit, Bilbo makes it through the whole adventure.
In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam make it through, along with Gandalf, Gimli, Legolas, and Arigorn.
In Star Wars, Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewy all live.
Star Trek mostly only killed the Red Shirts.
I’m sure you’re starting to see the picture. My point is that a lot of the most famous fiction of our time, with some of the most devoted fans on the planet, doesn’t take such a free hand with death.
I know what some of your are thinking. What about Dumbledor? Bilbo makes it, but Thorin doesn’t. Boramir dies! Yoda dies! Some of those Red Shirts seemed like nice guys!
Here’s the key though. Dumbledor (and J.K. Rowling) set up Harry to be the savior throughout the book. Dumbledor, though unbelievably awesome, is not actually playing a direct role throughout most of the books (he’s important, but not actually present in the pages). Rowling made you love him because Harry loved him, so you experience Harry’s loss in a visceral way. However, all of that emotion is centered on Harry.
The guy you really want to pull through in The Hobbit is Bilbo. It’s written that way on purpose–he’s the innocent, the one with the most to live for, with a wide open future ahead of him. You start to love Thorin by the end of the book, but only because of Bilbo’s growing admiration and respect. Again, it’s all centered on Bilbo, not Thorin.
In Star Wars (the originals), all of your hopes are placed on the shoulders of Luke, Han, and Liea. What about Obi-wan? Well, think about how long he was actually in the movie. Think about Luke’s face as Vader strikes him down. Where’s the emotion centered?
Besides, it’s completely unrealistic to throw characters into life threatening, exceedingly dangerous situations repeatedly and not have someone die. Suspension of disbelief is important!
Martin does things differently. He gets you centered, emotionally, on a character that he’s just going to kill off later. He makes you care for that character, and pull for that character. He even tells the story from that character’s perspective for a good chunk of the book (or even the series), making you think that survival is imperative for that individual. Then somebody loses his/her head or takes a dagger to the eye, and you’re left thinking, “What the hell?”
Because you’re directly attached to that character, and have been for a while, your perception of the world within the story is rocked to the core. You’re not sure who will live or die, and you don’t know who is going to win in the end. That death immediately creates doubt and tension while making you feel.
In short, it’s easy.
Picture a version of The Hobbit where Gollum successfully eats Bilbo, the scrumptious looking fat hobbit. The story then takes up with a grieving wizard and a company of dwarves that believe their journey is now cursed.
It’s a completely different book, and if you’re as attached to Bilbo as I am, you’re probably just a little upset (or appalled) at the thought. But, then again, that’s the idea.
Martin keeps just enough hope alive to keep you reading–to keep you thinking, “Hey, maybe this guy will make it.” Then he smacks you down with this character-killing BOOM stick, and the cycle starts all over again.