Monday, March 28, 2016

On the Importance of Death

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD for Malazan and Harry Potter.

Writing in fantasy gives authors a unique opportunity to skirt the effects of death by occasionally bringing a character back from beyond the mortal coil.

But should we?

One thing common theme amongst almost all other genres (unless it's the focus of the work) is that death is permanent, the end, full stop. Death can be used as an inciting action, climax, and resolution. Characters spend entire novels getting over the death of a loved one, or coping with their own impending death, or investigating the death of an innocent. And because of its permanent nature it's used to make a powerful statement. Characters die for a reason, or they die for a cause, or they die to show that sometimes death has no reason or cause which is a statement in and of itself. But the idea is death always makes a point one way or another, and it's the sharpest and most permanent statement that a character will ever make. But when death becomes a gray area, it begins to lose some of that poignancy and begins to lose some of the drama. Let's compare two examples of series that handle death differently and what it does to the narratives.

Let me start out by saying that Malazan Book of the Fallen is arguably my favorite series of all time. The story sprawled over a dozen volumes and followed the adventures of over 100 characters in an epic battle to save or destroy the world depending on which POV you're currently following. These are characters you know and love, and become attached to through battle and mundane activity and you feel their struggles. When they die, you feel that too. Never have I been so attached to a character as I was to a certain Malazan sergeant that met his end somewhere in the middle of the series.

The only problem was, by this point in the saga as many as a half dozen characters had already died and survived the ordeal through magical means. Well ok, so what does that mean for my favorite character's death? Well, it reduced the impact significantly. It blunted the point on the statement his death made, because the finality of death had been reduced to a gamble. Whiskyjack is dead, but would we see him again? Death in Malazan becomes less like the cover slamming shut on someone's story and more like going directly to jail in Monopoly. If they can manage to roll doubles, they're back in the game. And the more you think about it, the more you realize that this uncanny room for posthumous plot armor lessens the inherent risk any character faces when they enter a life-threatening situation. The drama dulls. Instead of life or death, we're presented a third option of 'Death, but then...'.

Now let's look at Harry Potter, and sure we're comparing a young-adult modern urban fantasy to a sprawling quasi-medieval epic fantasy. Why not?

Death is a huge deal in Harry Potter. The entire series is incited by the death of Harry's parents at the hand of Voldemort, and Voldemort also happens to be the only character to successfully come back from the dead. And it takes him 4 whole books of the 7 book series to manage it. This sort of thing is what makes him the dark lord, makes him so feared in the wizarding world, the fact that he's literally the only one that can break the rules. With the exception of Harry Potter himself.

But the rest of the cast? Mortal, pure and plain. When they die, they stay dead or they occasionally return as ghosts, but they never return to the life they had before. And there are a lot of good guys that die in Harry Potter. The big one everyone remembers is Harry's godfather, Sirius Black. Fell through the veil into the realm of death. Sure there was some ambiguity, it's a gateway right? Gateways have two sides.

But ultimately, JK's most powerful decision wasn't killing Sirius, it was letting him stay dead. She could have brought him back. The option was there, the fans wanted him to still be alive, and enough mystery surrounded the circumstances of his demise that even though we knew in our hearts that he was gone there was still some glimmer of hope. But because he stayed dead, the statement he made with his death was powerful. The statement of 'The boy who lived must continue to live, and that goal is worth dying for'. It showed how far the Order of the Phoenix was willing to go in order to keep Harry safe because they knew he was the only hope they had against Voldemort.

And because Sirius Black stayed dead, it made the statement of his death more effective than all of the deaths in Malazan where the character rolled boxcars and found their way back to the fight.

What are your thoughts on death and resurrection in fantasy? Let me know, I'd love to hear your opinions.

Scott Warren