12 Days of Meditations #8: On character death

As I was reading The Saint, the second Gaunt’s Ghosts omnibus by Dan Abnett, the author himself talks about the collection of books in the preface, saying that “these are the books where people start to die.” Important people, he means, as the series has always had a high bodycount every book, being a war story set in the grim darkness of the 41st millennium. And he follows up on his word.

I wasn’t mad, or bewildered. The death was a logical progression to things, even though the execution was quite clever. I didn’t begrudge the author for that, and welcomed how it would shake up the status quo. Maybe I had been forewarned and forearmed for it, but it was still a powerful event in the overall narrative. It was written well.

As a medium known for its stylized action and violence, anime has had its fair share of death. A lot of shows have made their name for their shocking deaths, of which can’t be ignored when discussing them. How many people have told their friends to watch a show up until a certain episode, where a major character dies shockingly? I know I have!

It’s a major hook. The death of a character in a show where its audience isn’t primed for it is shocking. It’s as if the writers are saying, “think this is an anime where the good guys always win in the end? Whoops, gotcha!” Some characters even start to develop a personality of their own, right before they’re killed off. The writer crams in scene after scene to make the audience care about that particular character, in the same episode where they go. It’s become a death flag on its own.

Why does this happen? Stories maintain the reader’s interest by increasing the stakes and escalating conflict. The nature of storytelling has evolved wherein we place more importance on characters than plots. Obviously, to kill off a prominent character will up the ante in a story–character death is usually permanent, and it confines the character within a certain period of time–here is where we meet him, and here is where we see him leave.

This is a thing in comics. Major story arcs could end in a character’s death. If the character is particularly well-liked among fans, he or she could be brought back in as much as a year, or even earlier. Even the adage that only Uncle Ben, Bucky, and Barry Allen should stay dead forever in comics has proven false–the latter two have been resurrected already and are currently running around in their universes.

Not all instances of character death are equal. An anime could have a high bodycount and not tug a single viewer’s heartstrings. We see this in particularly bloody OVAs of the 80s. The deaths are violent and gory, but they are all spectacle. We are provoked into laughing and wondering how possible it is for a person to be bisected so neatly from being pulled apart by the superhuman protagonist, and go on to the next scene. For a recent example, the second season of Valvrave has an episode where many students are gunned down–a plot point that increases the stakes for the protagonists of the show (who are fighting for the students’ survival), but nothing more than shock value for the viewer.

I’ve grown tired of this. Specifically, I’ve grown tired of the callousness of such violence. Sometimes I just want to be entertained, without the expense of a fictional character experiencing a tragic end. Moreover, the dire nature of character death makes it hard to discuss anything about the story without touching upon it. Try talking about Game of Thrones with someone who hasn’t watched or read it. If you try to dig deep into the plot, you’ll find yourself at risk divulging spoilers. Worse, it becomes a weapon for trolls to ruin others’ fun by spoiling them!

And yet, a story cannot stand on shock value alone. The first time, it should call your attention, but (hopefully, provided the story is well-written enough) succeeding viewings will make the event sensible and inevitable. It should not be contrived.

(When I watched a certain episode of a popular magical girl series, I was shocked with its ending, but as I rewatched the episodes that led to that particular event, I realized that the signs had been there all along about the show’s true nature, and the event itself merely sealed the deal.)

This is why I’ve began seeking out light-hearted, all-ages shows which are still compelling even when I do not have to worry if my favorite character will survive the week; given what used to be my anime diet, it’s a wonder that I haven’t choked on it yet. An adult could only take as much reminding of the reality that he lives in. And since some stories rely so much on their twists that experiencing them once effectively takes out all their bite, sometimes I deliberately spoil myself and see how well a show performs even if I know what’s going to happen next.

I’m not saying character death as a plot point is bad. But it’s a tool so easily misused that oftentimes it loses its meaning. Death, in fiction as in real life, should matter–the death of one person, fictional or not, could mean everything to others. It should be used with care.

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2 Responses to 12 Days of Meditations #8: On character death

  1. r042 says:


    Here’s a question – how would you compare Gaunt’s Ghosts handling of character precarity with something like Z Gundam, V Gundam or even a show like VOTOMS? Whenever I read the IG novels from the Black Library I get a “grim mecha anime” vibe from them, myself.

    • schneider says:

      I think they’re the same, in the sense that the threat to the main characters is very real. In Gaunt’s Ghosts I read every book expecting someone important to die, and while it only starts to happen in the fifth book, it’s really well-done. Much more than Tomino’s shows, I think.

      Contrary to how some people have viewed it, I thought “no one is safe” from the start, and not “no one really dies in these books–OH GOD NO ONE IS SAFE”.

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