It isn’t necessary to have seen a single episode of South Park (created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone) to recognize the character in this post’s thumbnail. Thanks to the internet and a little something called meme culture, chances are anyone who’s even remotely heard of South Park will recognize the orange clad character who practically represents comedic mortality. When it comes to writing, there are few elements as thrilling or hilarious depending on the circumstance, as witnessing the death of a character. It happens in your favorite books, movies and more than ever before, television shows. Stating that character deaths in fiction now seem to be mandatory is nothing new. That trend is in large part due to big-hit shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, to name the two other shows I’ll be discussing in this post. These shows maximized on the prospect of many characters dying throughout their drama-filled seasons. Not surprisingly, audiences raved in response to the change of pace and the thrilling element of a story’s narrative no longer securing its characters’ survival.
The success (for the most part) of both these shows challenged writers to debate: how much is too much when it comes to killing off your characters? Was there room to rethink your fictional mortality rate when Game of Thrones author George R. Martin had managed to do so in such a unique way? Why did the steady-paced but still shocking deaths in The Walking Dead go from making the show to breaking it? How is it that South Park kept their running joke going so long despite their joke breaking literally every taboo around death in a television series? The answer to all of these questions come down to understanding the success and failure behind the use of character deaths in each show. These are my favorite titles to site when discussing how character deaths can both help and harm a story if not done with care. As different as they are, these three shows eventually experienced a similar event where the writers were forced to change how they handled the deaths of characters in their stories. For only one of these examples, the decision resulted in success while the other two ended with…not that.
The success story, not surprisingly, belongs to South Park. Since the show’s conception, the character, Kenny McCormick, was established as one of the show’s staple running jokes. Whether from the ploys of the episode’s villain or just for the sake of sticking to the joke, Kenny died on an every-episode basis. This bit worked for so long because of its consistency. Repeatedly eliminating a character over and over in odd and hilarious ways was part of what kept viewers coming back for more. Ironically enough, it was the writers who grew miserable of having to constantly animate new ways of killing Kenny that they decided the joke had run its course. For a writer, deciding when a plot line, joke or even a character needs to meet its end can be difficult. Sometimes the “how” to end an element of a story can prove more challenging when you're uncertain how best to approach it. I consider this example interesting firstly because exhaustion being Parker and Stone’s motivation is so opposite from what I’ve heard other writers juggle when considering a change.
Despite their eagerness to end the bit, taking considerable care in offering fans a worthy sendoff that announced this character’s “permanent” end resulted in success. The decision took the form of an episode titled: "Kenny Dies" that offered a long, drawn out debate among the characters speculating if this in fact was "the last time." Fans completed the episode refusing to believe Kenny was gone until witnessing the character's absence from the rest of the season. Once the decision settled, fans both raved and despaired that Kenny had ultimately died. Only to see the character resurrected midway through the following season. The bit where Kenny dies in every episode didn't follow, and the fact was hardly missed by the fans. This change offers a worthy example of both the writers offering themselves room to allow a long running joke to rest while compromising with the interests of their audience. Making the decision to end an element of your story when it's run its course is a smart one. In this particular case, it still gets me that Parker andStone got to rid themselves of the labor but keep the character. When a character has served it's purpose, you're generally going to find yourself deciding their departure from the story. Something, tragically, that contributed to a larger problem in the following example.
Since the completion of the show based on George R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (more popularly known as Game of Thrones) inspired a debate regarding the rules for killing off characters. For the majority of the show’s run, audiences obsessed over the sensationalizing of characters dying in waves in a way that had never before been done in television. Gone was the tried and tested formula of characters surviving impossible odds and here was a story where characters didn’t survive their demise. What made Game of Thrones so unique in its earlier run was how, overall, the character deaths were meaningful and justified by the active plot. Though some fans accused the story of depending on character deaths for shock value, people thirsted for more. This changed gradually as the show went on (due in large part from running out of content from Martin) and resulted in…its end. Make no mistake, I’m no way saying I was any less disillusioned as the next viewer by that atrocious last season. (Don’t get me started on D&D) I won’t use this blog post to complain about Game of Thrones’ ending because everyone with a word processor and internet access in existence has already beat me to it. Also, I’d prefer focusing on what good came from Martin’s writing for the sake of this topic.
To Martin’s credit, I personally haven’t seen many stories before or sense the show’s completion that effectively plays with the shock factor of so many characters dying with total justification from both the plot and world building. Major characters dropping like flies tend to do so because of the vicious political realm in the story. Entire armies are slaughtered only to stand back up, blue-eyed and soundless, because a frozen necromancer intent on bringing forth his apocalypse has recycled their corpses. Both tensions, acute and chronic (in that order) require the body counts they amass to communicate to the reader the substantial threat they pose. Once the reader is able to grasp the threat both tensions provide, the buildup to the acute and chronic tensions meeting…typically make for a great climax. Typically. Martin was able to pull off what he did because his story depended on him doing so. In this way, Martin demonstrated to his audience that his characters had more than one powerful obstacle to face. These obstacles were so threatening, that sometimes characters would face a choice between dying to political intrigue or dying to the icy necromancer’s mounting army. The amount of death in this story upped its scale. It made both threats bigger, the protagonists seem smaller and the resolution…harder to reach.
While the first episode of Game of Thrones’ aired on HBO, another show had already been on the receiving end of praise for well thought out and emotional character deaths. Audience felt like they’d been taken seriously and wouldn't you know it, that appeal brought them back every Sunday night. The show I’m referring to is The Walking Dead based upon the comics of the same name by authors Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore. The Walking Dead was celebrated by fans as a thrilling, cautionary tale of what would happen to human beings who were thrust into a zombie apocalypse. The show explored characters facing fierce psychological trauma, tribalism and the constant struggle to maintain morality in a world where survival depended on immoral decision making. Cleverly, the show started with the constant and overwhelming threat of zombies dominating the world by sheer numbers. By its third season, the writers expanded upon their world building and established a secondary threat: tribalism. Through the success of effective world building, the cast now faced another terribly constant threat; other human beings who had survived the zombie apocalypse but cracked under the pressure of their hostile environment. The phrase used to promote the show for many seasons, as I remember, was: “Fight the dead. Fear the living.” An ingenious little slogan that offered a refreshing and addictive experience fans came back every Sunday to watch. The show was so popular, it had an after-show titled, “Talking Dead” hosted by Chris Hardwick that was dedicated to discussing the episode of that day.
Part of what made The Walking Dead so groundbreaking in its earlier seasons was how refreshing its take was on how characters died on the show. Sometimes the death of a character came down to bad luck, betrayal or their death was simply inevitable. The thrill behind each death focused entirely on the fact that no character was safe. No amount of skill, logic or the size of a character’s group mattered when it came to the unpredictability of the world. The strongest in a group could die because of a rusted ladder breaking or the quickest of the group could have picked the wrong corner to dart around. Audiences love character deaths because in good writing, they lead to something or equate tension from the loss of something valuable. When presented with a character who evades death because “they have plot immunity” or don’t die because they are the protagonist of the story, viewers (or readers) will be quick to turn on the writing. If death retains no meaning for a main or side character, then what do they have to fear? If there’s an established pattern of less significant characters being the only ones who die, an unfortunate immunity has been established in the writing and audiences can only disregard it for so long.
The death of a character in any work of fiction can also be indicative of a change in tone the readers will face. Once the world was perceived to be thematically one way but with the death of this character, the reader is now enlightened to a thematic shift in the story. This exact instance can be observed in Game of Thrones when Ned Stark is executed for discovering the true lineage of the Lannister children. Not only is Ned Stark’s honor not going to spare him from death, but he’s left his children acutely unprepared for the world’s true nature. This scenario in Martin’s story is an example of this kind of thematic change done right. The Walking Dead, on the other hand, gives us an effective example of how it’s done wrong.
On April 3rd, 2016, the show’s sixteenth episode of its sixth season titled, “Last Day on Earth,” premiered and instantly became the show’s most infamous episode. There are many reasons for this, but the most relevant is it’s the episode that ultimately caused the show’s ratings to sharply decline. For many the episode’s exceedingly visceral and cruel execution of two fan-favorite characters was too much to handle. For many more it was the last straw following a series of “gotcha’” fake-outs. It goes without saying that tricking one’s audience is always a bad idea because regardless of artistic medium, no crowd enjoys the feeling of not being taken seriously. The problem this show faced, however, has less to do with trickery and more with the decision to modify its thematic focus. The show took advantage of expanding its world building by tackling obstacles the characters faced in stages. The first couple of seasons tackled the overwhelming presence of zombies with the occasional fellow survivor turning up on their own. During this stage, the threat of other humans was considered minimal and encounters were far and few. The world was treacherous enough as it is and was capable of taking its time to establish the perpetual threat of the undead. The following seasons subsequently worked to expand upon the world by introducing the danger of other people. Other groups who had faced the same trials as the main characters exhibited tribalism behaviors that, as you'd expect, resulted in people warring with each other for control over safe territory. This stage of the show continued until the infamous episode.
By this point, the show had established a steady pattern of expansion: here’s the threat that changed the world, and now here’s the threat that the world’s creating. Each threat claimed about the same number of lives as its predecessor but with more emotion behind each kill. The threat of mindless zombie killings progressed to the threat of mindful human killings. This is about where The Walking Dead experienced its problem with its infamous episode. The episode begins by introducing the series’ newest antagonist and ends with his performing a double execution. This double execution, however, does more than just killing two fan favorites. The scene is also indicative of the thematic “cautionary tale of human nature in an apocalypse” being replaced with…undecided. Or “torture porn” if you ask the really disgruntled fans. Without a thematic dilemma for the characters to face, the once emotional and morality-challenging character deaths were reduced to “the eventual victim of psychopath antagonist because psychopath antagonist is evil.”
Game of Thrones did not, for all its (many, many) faults, suffer from this issue in its prior seasons because every death on screen was required to demonstrate the scale of the danger the world was facing. The threats were clear from the beginning but were expanded upon organically as the characters became more and more exposed to their scale over time. The Walking Dead, on the other hand, lost the substance and thus proved why the emotion and significance behind character deaths can be undercut by a lack of thematic focus. By this stage, the characters are no longer challenged by a moral standpoint to stake their lives on because their adversary’s primary trait is being immoral. The show suffered from its lack of moral quandary that previously endangered characters (and thrilled audiences) and the reaction was as you’d expect.
Every story will treat death differently for hundreds of reasons but the choice should always be made with care. Killing off characters for mere shock value and little more reason will quickly wear thin. Each character death carries weight because it serves a purpose to your story. South Park set an excellent example of both purpose and wise decision making on the creators’ part. Their satirizing death hilariously subverts expectations regarding a character’s previous state of constantly dying to being the butt of immortality jokes. This shift in the joke enables the creators to make the wise decision to allow a long running joke rest. Before Game of Thrones’…trouble with its final seasons, the use of character death allowed Martin to establish how big the dangers faced by his characters were. The show ultimately suffered when the writers lost direction (without content from the author) and didn’t know how to conclude what they had devoted years to building. In the same way, The Walking Dead maintained its strong following until the writers made the decision to thematically shift their story in a way that couldn’t follow its well-established and formulaic pattern of evolving themes. Death without purpose is the ultimate way a writer can undercut their own story. Death with a purpose is the better way a writer can serve both their story and their audience.