Necronomicon Aesthetica: Character Death and the Reader

TREMBLE I SAID
BEHOLD AND TREMBLE

The Mad Missourian, Ben Wheeler returns!

A tome of terror and nightmare beyond your reckoning! IT IS THE NECRONOMICON AESTHETICA . Bound in the twisted and flayed flesh of critics and penned with the blood-tear ink of underpaid and overworked artists, this book will be the end-all and be-all of entertaining fiction analysis. This is not to be an explicit guide to a paint by numbers towards something poor, generic and, Lord forgive me for saying this, derivative. This is a guide to promoting excellence of story telling, to look at, disagree with or consult like a road map where you already know the way, but you want to make sure.

Read ON brave delver of the darkest literary arts!

Bats circle your grey-granite fortress, bringing news from the outside world. Like flies around a rotting corpse, they scream their dark messages to you. You revel in it, laughing into the night. The villagers are restless, yet they don’t dare come out with torches and pitchforks. The bats would shred them more carefully than any grinder.  They don’t dare look for the hooded man standing on the tallest hill a mile from their village. If he died, all the bats would disappear in a puff of sulfur smoke. They don’t dare open their windows, even though the bats are certainly not there for them. The village fathers desire the cursed guano to fertilize their fields, but it is preferable to lose some in the night, than to lose their lives to the eternally thirsty throats of those monstrosities.

From your balcony, William Twist jots down notes and diagrams on an errant skinflap. They speak of many dark things, deaths and murders, rape and adultery, misery and in-laws. The greatest of the brimstone-scented bats flies in and grapples with the crystal you had laid out for them. The thing, big enough to fight with eagles and F-16s, grips the crystal in its claws and pulls out, flapping its leather wings into the darkness. The crystal glows as it bobs away, and you watch it disappear. Your publisher, Marshall, Carter and Dark LTD, will be pleased with your contribution to the Library of Shadows, surely. Arcane tomes, such as yours, full to the brim of the deadly ambrosia, literary competence, are valued in their underground halls. You have not visited there in a while, and perhaps you should. Always a profane new idea being croaked out by the tumor toads or an old trope rejuvenated by a dip in the pool of thots and thottish literature.

You sigh with pleasure and read out the notes the hideous and soulful hunchback, William Twist, wrote. You feel a twinge of concern and turn to the statue of ITUMBO OF NIGHT. The idol is in its ‘neutral’ form, one meaty hand under the chin and a glimmer of malice in the eyes. You mentally decide to up the sacrificial lamb count. Your muse is burnishing her nails in the Mirror of Souls, unconcerned with the notes that unman you.

Cursing the expenses you put out to be at the height of literary occultism, you descend into the Pit of Heads, wherein you have preserved the wisest of councilors. The one you seek was once a man of literary philosophy. His insights were deep and pithy, yet practical. You seek him now and pull his head in its bell-jar from the Lazarus mosh-pit. After the usual “Please Kill me” “I’ll f****** kill you if I ever get the chance!” “PLEASE I’M BEGGING YOU, END MY TORMENT!”, you can have a conversation with him. You show him the notes and what you’ve collected, and ask if you have made a misplay. He replies in this way.

From what you’ve asked me, I can tell that a substantial part of this is probably more you than anything, but here goes. Basically, deaths need to serve a purpose or have meaning for the reader to fully appreciate them. Not just meaning, either, but good meaning that elevates the heart of whoever has your cursed books in hand. This meaning can take a lot of forms or weight classes, but essentially, the more central to the plot the hero is, the more meaningful or tragic the death must be. And that’s tragic with purpose, of course.

In your original edit, the Dragon Knight, then called Ellesmere, sacrifices herself for the princess. While your correction to have her live is the better one, it isn’t a bad death in and of itself. She is pursuing her purpose and not dying for no reason. In a ‘all or nothing’ situation, about 3/4ths of the way through the story, with the build up of a climax, this sort of thing is useful to remind the readers that the heroes are not all powerful, and the villain still outclasses them. You can make them mourn the dead character and have it increase their motivation to stop evil lord whos-he-watsit.

There is a variant where one of the assumed main character can die early or in the course of the story besides the climax. Then, there are two ways to handle it. Resurrect him in some manner or talk with him as a ghost, mental projection or during a trip to the underworld. Not even joking with that. Having the main character visit a dead uncle or parents is an amazing way to set up personal character growth and reinforce the themes that you’re trying to go for. “You can’t escape your past/overcome your past.” “Fulfilling the legendary destiny” “Paying the cost for what you want” and so on. There really isn’t a BAD time to kill people off, it’s more in how it’s handled.

At the beginning, killing a character in the middle of an Orc raid can turn into unnecessary pathos if handled poorly. There’s no reason not to burn down the main character’s village so long as there’s a decent reason like a ‘prophecy’ or ‘I didn’t like how one of those goats looked at me.” But having a multiple page scene of his mother bleeding onto the cobbles is a bit much. By setting up this tragedy, you can provide a move forward, but at some time the sparks gonna go out and since it’s not very heroic to always be gunning for revenge, you probably want him to get over that eventually. Either he talks it over with a counselor, priest or love interest, or he talks it over with the dead character in question. Endless possibilities here. Leaving a character who is driven by revenge with that revenge will inevitably end in tragedy. Having a character go through is a dark work, but it won’t be a good work unless all the murdered characters have a cost to murdering them that the main character in this tale is willing to pay.

The secret is in the treatment of ‘heroic deaths’ an audience reading in good faith, and holding you to standards, will become offended in their sensibilities. If an audience reads in bad faith, do what you want with them. Kill main characters to be edgy. Have it be a snuff film for all they care. Just never lose that quality you hooked them in the first place, otherwise you won’t sell books and you won’t be remembered. If these ‘bad faith’ readers have any taste, they will hold you to standards of grammar, not standards of plot or character.

Ellesmere is a good example of a death potentially well done. I didn’t read the sequence. The pathos of her boyfriend mourning her, and the pyre sequence at the end must have had the weight to it that such an event required. I mean, you did that right? You didn’t just leave her a corpse, but had her lover taker her broken body and her princess to the lava-striding Spartans who raised her, and they buried her with full honors, right? You didn’t just gloss over it and leave it there, as if a funeral was so obvious that you didn’t have to write about it? Don’t fool yourself, nothing is too obvious for readers to overlook, even ones reading in good faith. Readers aren’t stupid, but never rely on not needing to tell them anything. It isn’t ‘Bad Faith’ to question a writer or the actions his characters take. It’s your job to uphold the suspension of disbelief through entertainment and quality.

To handle the death of sweet, soulful Gorgu, your insipid mascot character, it would have to be necessary, tragic and weighty. He has to give speeches in that cursed ‘cute’ speak you wrote for him. Then he climbs into the cauldron or absorbs the power stones into himself and explodes and everyone’s sad but then the plot moves on without him. Having people say “Gorgu, sweet and soulful, died for this.” will bring it up to the reader as a motivation, but it need not be given much more depth, since it’s nearly impossible to. Whereas Ellesmere causes her lover to go into ‘Knight Syndrome’ mode and have to be encouraged to fight, one or two pages of “Everyone’s crying over Gorgu’s ugly-cute corpse” will suffice, mostly. Perhaps a cairn by the sea and the hero saying something about the stars always twinkling over him… YUCK! Far too much sentiment, but required. Funerals are a type of catharsis for the reader, and ignoring them will hurt their ability to move on. Making it too tragic will hurt them too. For this, the middle road is best, since it both allows economy of words while allowing the reader time to grieve. I may hate Gorgu, but I bet some 7 year old boy or 80 year old grandma loved him. Treat them with more respect than I, since treating his death with gravitas will not offend me beyond impatience, but treating his death without gravitas will surely disrupt their humors, and cause them to cease reading.

Things not to do for the heroic characters: Overuse the death trope. It is well you only killed 2 characters in your original edit. It’s about right for the band of true companions. Mixed in that right amount of mournfulness and regret, while keeping the soul of the band together, which is important.

Kill the love interest: While killing the love interest can raise the dramatic stakes super high, if you do it too early or in favor of some other chick more in line with your, the author’s, personal taste in women, it’ll look more like you’re cleaning up the love triangle in the cheapest fashion, not actually taking the time with the characters to develop love properly. Always a bad move. If you kill the love interest, he doesn’t just move on. Maybe there’s some hot 1000 year old smokin hot sorceress you want him to shack up with. Fine, I’ll humor you. Have the relationship be about shared tragedy and experiences. She’s talking about all the lovers she’s had in her unnaturally long life, and knows how to comfort him and ensure he keeps up the fight. All in all, “Killing the Love Interest” is one of the most DANGEROUS PLAYS an author can make and can ruin everything done wrong. Heck, it might ruin everything for most readers when done right.

Adding someone to the hero’s party, then killing them: No, just don’t do it. Have a character leave or get into a fight or just wander off, but do not assume you can ascribe sufficient weight to a character you introduced, then killed off. It is offensive and obvious. I would say rule of thumb is a character has to be alive for two books, yes books, or more before you kill them off. In single tome works, multiple chapters. If they don’t actually affect how the climax is gonna turn out, you don’t need to kill them off, or add them to the story. In context to the hero’s companions, of course. What’s more, it can’t be a light affair of ‘Rock Falls’ either. Give him the respect ‘Good Faith’ readers are giving you, even if you plan to kill him off in book 3 fighting the main villain.

Killing off side-characters or important figures on the hero’s side, but not part of the main party: Do it carefully. Instead of killing Fira’s father with poisoned magma snails courtesy of Lord Igaram, you could have let him live and have him be a part of the hero’s rallying army. Igaram has his daughter anyway, it was excuse enough. Same with shop keepers and other such characters who show up and help the heroes. Their lives aren’t worth their merchandise. They won’t die over a trinket they’d sell to the heroes for fifty gold pieces. If you do kill them, it’s more sadism of a different character. Remember what I said at the previous paragraph. Same basic standards apply.

Lastly: Having the hero’s party die off one by one to ensure victory. This is a risky play, and can end with readers being frustrated, especially if you hinted at a happy ending. Don’t frustrate your readers needlessly. Giving each struggle forward this weight can work if all the characters are developed. Maybe the best friend who loved Ellesmere/Grima can’t go on living without her because he is an over dramatic teenager with angst and a lance. Maybe he holds off the orcs, slaying one hundred of their number before Gogmog (the orc commander) slays him personally. That ain’t a bad way to do it, if you have to do it. Since Gogmog is surely his rival, having a mutual death is heroic tragedy par excellence. You can’t keep doing the murder thing, but doing it like that DOES have its benefits. Breaking down the party to its original pair (hero and lover) or trio (hero, lover, best friend) is a great way to focus the story on the conflict that matters, Hero VS Lord Igaram

In the middle we have characters who have either moral neutrality, or performs a ‘heel-face turn’, that is, betrays the villainous side of things for the heroic side of things. While it may be satisfying to kill those who you politically disagree with, but can’t accuse of, say, attempted genocide or the same depths of political corruption that your real enemies are culpable of, it isn’t a good excuse to wipe them out. Not in your type of story, anyway.

Neutral characters should be in every work to help the flavor and world building. However, not every ‘neutral’ character really is neutral. Before you stole my head and dunked me in this pit, I read a story “The Broken Man” by Hawkings Austin. The world building is excellent, but he spent a weird amount of time on various characters who had no effect on plot, and were neutral to most of the personal issues that most characters were going through. Things happened in their courts, and while it really made for a believable world, it slowed the pace of the story so much it frustrated me. These nobles and others had to be there for world building, no lie. They didn’t have to be so prominent all the time. Killing them would also be a bad move. Having a near fight scene in another part of the book would have hurt the book over all, and the author avoids it, but it added unnecessary tension we had seen earlier that never went anywhere. Characters should have their place, and act naturally within their environment and within their roles. Killing them, again, may be satisfying, but if its not to the spirit of the book, avoid where ever possible. Pointless deaths are unnecessary, usually. Can’t make a hero’s journey without killing a few over-protective parents.

Another neutral character type is the ‘outsider’. Unlike shop keepers or parents who look a little… stabable, outsiders have no connection to the land like the heroes and others should. They are far travelers from Araby, or sailors from the Orient and so on. They don’t interact with the plot, but may be important in one of the side plots the characters have to go through. Murdering them doesn’t affect as much in the personal sense, but it can open up tons of potential. It’s really whatever you want here, as long as it’s to the spirit of the story. The problem comes with ensuring they fit into the world at large, and art just props. I’ll assume you’re good enough not to fall into that trap.

This includes fairies/aliens/mystical creatures, if they are not explicitly good or working for the villains. Killing a unicorn is tragic exactly once, and should only be done for a purpose. Killing fairies is usually pointless. If they are a part of the world, squishing a pixie to make the villain more villainous is cheap. Avoid all things cheap. While the readers never need to question ‘villainy’ having your villain squish fairies with a flyswatter is a bit much. By this point he needs to be wading through all kinds of perished parents or murdered mentors to prove his villain cred.

For characters who repent and turn to the hero’s side, there are two ways about it. First, redemption equals death and then ‘dies as a traitor deserves’. In the first, the former villain makes a choice to put their lives on the line to make up for some evil. I.e. The Ice Quean, rather than using the magical artifacts to heal her own wounds, revives the ‘Heir’ and dies because of it. In this case, she can’t just die. She’s been the main villain until Igaram took over and you can’t just gloss that over because someone shinier and with a better laugh shows up. The heir has to hold her in his arms as she dies and talk about the sacrifices she made for him and so on. Tragedy and drama, essentially. She really WASN’T that evil all along, so on. I’ll point out that this death thing has to happen pretty much immediately after their turn to good from evil. Having them killed later is more the second type, or, if they somehow survived the villain’s revenge for betraying them, it’s more what I’ve talked about earlier and the character is a full fledged hero.

“Rewarded as a traitor deserves” is tricky, but important. Villains are people after all. Lets say a soldier decides to defect to the hero’s army, but the villain recaptures him. Beheading him, while technically ‘Redemption equals death’ is more properly ‘rewarded as a traitor deserves’. Protagonist centered morality is modernist clap-trap. Even though the soldier was trying to do ‘good’ he is STILL a traitor to his former companions. I wouldn’t use this trope often, or go through it too quickly.

We’ll use Grima/Ellesmere, since she fits the ‘betrayer of evil’ role better, while not being a ‘defector from decadence’ WHEW! The subtle layers! Having Igaram try to execute her in front of Princess Fira and forcing the heroes to save her is a great plot line. It is not offensive to any sane standard for Lord Igaram to want to kill her, nor potentially use her death as a trap for the heroes. While the content doesn’t matter, the death has to be on the table, even if you don’t follow through. If the readers are going “You wouldn’t REALLY do it.” You have become predictable. Break through it and give them a good swift kick between the legs and gun the suspense for all its worth. Once the readers see that Ellesmere/Grima COULD die, they should become more hooked. I’d even go as far as have her dancing at the end of a rope and then have the healer break a rib or two giving her CPR to revive her. Don’t break her neck, of course, but she’s a tough girl and should be able to take a short drop. Of course, all of this would cause psychological issues any number of ways. It could affect her intimacy with her love interest or her ability to fight or make some interesting scars… So long as it’s not glossed over in her character or not affect other characters. It’s a good way to get the lovebirds to finally confess their feelings for each other. Now if only the heroes and that cute healer would get over their embarrassment…

Now for villains: There are three classes of villain, with the last having three sub classes: Goons, minibosses and bosses (normal, Big, Final).

Goons are your unnamed orc, soldier or common werewolf. There’s not much to say about them. Kill them off as you want. Killing orcs, werewolves and other semi-fantastic but always evil characters is a ‘free action’. Killing human mooks isn’t so much. Humans are recognizable to each other. Some authors give them a culture, like Vikings, Zulu or Samurai, but really that’s flavor to hide the human in them. Don’t have them die slowly to a gut wound, since too much pathos can flavor moments you want the hero to cut down the enemy “Like a scythe at harvest”or whatever. The reader will question the fact that you spent forty pages on one soldier dying in book one, but in book five, it’s not so much casualty count as ‘statistics’. You might think a dragon knight would be in this category, but no. Some things are too cool to be a mere goon/mook/soldier/whatever.

Minibosses are lieutenants, sorcerers, chief werewolves and orc captains, but not so important as they get their own name or backstory. Usually, they should be leading a squad of mooks/goons. They can be killed pretty freely, provided they are treated with the threat they deserve. While a hero can go full swordmaster, these guys should always be able to fight him… not necessarily on equal grounds, but enough to stop him momentarily.

These guys should never ‘end’ a book, but they should show up at whatever mini-climax the book has leading up to the big one, provided it’s appropriate. I.e. At the end of a dungeon at the climax of the first half of book 2 or guarding the gates to the castle in book 5. All kinds of fights are possible. This is more a showpiece than a Character vs Character sort of thing. Don’t go “I’m Captain Harold and this is my backstory! Lets fight! Oh I’m dead, tell my children I loved them.” Captain Harold could have kids. He could mention them, but it’s kinda unnecessary to give his death weight like that when he just burned down a village or unleashed a demon or smashed the only weapon capable of stopping… you see where I’m going. He can HAVE weight, he doesn’t NEED weight as far as narratives go. The potential is not the same as necessity.

Some types of villain/goon whatever are too cool to use as a mere mook and must be minibosses. Dragon or most kinds of knights, giants, Frankensteinian monsters and some cyborgs are in this class. Knights are obvious, being martial nobility by default, they are uncommon, highly trained and come with a loyal mount. Giants are just big, can double as a normal/big boss. Their deaths should leave a crater/new, grim landmark Frankensteinian monsters are this/recurring boss since they can be put back together. Tailor make them to the situation you want. Cyborgs are difficult, but they’re different from sorcerers, since it’s techno-magic, not mystic-magic in their bag of tricks. Essentially, they should be able to take a punch, or survive a beheading. They can also be recurring with little difficulty, since back up bodies or really easy parts replacement is open to them.

Recurring bosses go between this and the next one. Over all, having a villain keep coming back is a great way to show how the heroes grow, but don’t kill him off unceremoniously. Ideally, the guy should be a boss the first time, miniboss the next few times and a Big Boss the last time, since he’s guarding the entrance to the volcano ritual site with the remainders of Lord Igaram’s army. Having the hero FINALLY kill the guy is a great demonstration of character growth in the martial sense and a great prelude to the FINAL BOSS of the franchise. Alternatively, have the hero’s party fight him, while the hero runs on to fight the final boss. Not much else to say about it. You can’t demonize him too much, since it’ll have readers clamoring for his blood and disgusted when he escapes or survives. Throwing him into a spike pit or snake breeding farm or toddler filled daycare is a great way to defeat him, but having him survive TOO much is going to offend the readers and have them lose their suspension of disbelief. Basically Escape>feigned death>barely survived>Resurrected. Resurrection is kinda a dumb thing to write in ALL forms of novel unless it’s a sweet sweet Jesus allegory. It removes weight from death and if the villains can do it, it opens whole cases of cans of worms.

Bosses have 3 subgenres: Normal, Big and Final. Normal bosses are reserved for characters who are not minibosses and have weight to their actions. I.e. Ellesmere at the middle of book one. She is working for the villain, has a gang-buster fight with the heroes and then is captured with her dragon, somehow. Killing them should be much, much more difficult than killing a miniboss. I include getting to where the hero can stab him in that statement. While you can end a book on killing them, they serve as mid-book bosses for the dungeon or whatever just as well, depending on how the plot is moving. Characters in this class include dragons hoarding the magical item needed for the plot to advance, sorcerers with actual power/minions to them and generals. Again, killing them should mean something to the main plot, rather than any side plot or unimportant detail. The build up should last for a few chapters and they should get speaking parts.

Note: It is not necessary to kill a boss, but rather, remove them from play ‘Killing’ their part in the story.

Big Bosses should have personal weight to them, and mark changes in the plot and the characters. They should be the final boss of whatever arc the heroes are in. Therefore, killing them should be a big deal. I.e. killing Glaur or Gogmog, or backing the Ice Quean into a corner. In my world: Homestuck has a great division on this. Bosses are the various characters in the game, like the Black Queen or Jack, there are multiple across various instances of the game. The Big Bosses are the Condesce vs the main characters and Spades Slick with Jack English in a melee a trois With other main characters not connected to the Condesce explicitly. The Final Boss is Lord English and his fight is completely different in scale to the rest of them, though it means less since he isn’t a ‘face’ to their troubles until over halfway through the narrative. And even then he doesn’t do much for a long time after.

The Final Boss is the last major threat the heroes have to face. Lord Igaram at the lip of the volcano about to perform the ritual, in your case. This is THE moment the hero must shine through. It doesn’t matter HOW it actually happens, but that it MUST happen. It must be the culmination of everything you, the writer has set up so far. Whether it’s Lord English being trapped in a black hole set up by a dead time paradox clone of his sister (it makes sense in context I swear) to Frodo about to cast the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom to Monkey D. Luffy Facing ‘Z’ at the end of the One Piece ‘Z’ Movie at the top of the Volcano. Homestuck brings its time shenanigans to an end, and forever traps the indestructible demon through the sacrifice of the already dead. Frodo faces the temptations hounding him, but fails, only for Gollum to take over. Luffy fights one of the old guard who remembers the days of Luffy’s ancestors, and the wars and must be overcome as Luffy must overcome the guardians of society in the main series. Lord Igaram’s final demise must be every fiber of his being against the hero. The hero who thwarted his plans, killed his generals and friends, and turned even his daughter against him… The hero must pit every fiber of his being against Lord Igaram. The man who burned down his village, perverted everything he touched and threatens the whole world… You see what I did there? While Igaram is evil and must be killed in this moment, he has had his own character arc to this point, and this is the climax of it. Of course, you wrote the type of story where the villain loses, which is good. But because you have surely telegraphed this to your readers, you must now, without reservations or restraint, bring out the big guns. This is Literary Sakuga, a specialty of Japanese animation. You should be at the peak of your skill, and pull every trick in your literary grab bag for the benefit of the readers.

In other words, the death (or other ironic demise) itself is guaranteed. What isn’t guaranteed is that the reader will appreciate it. Stabbing Igaram in the back is a choice that can be made, but it is not the best one. Better yet is to have them duel over the platform of the exploding volcano. BEST is to have the fighting spirits of his friends flow into the hero and have the very thing that Igaram despised and rallied against defeat him. Anything can happen here. It’s a place of power and power is flowing like a oil geyser. Nothing is off the table, provided it has elements of the story within it. Drop your villain in a black hole? Homestuck could do it because it has a lot of those elements in it. Have a personal story about failing to overcome temptation? Tolkien did it perfectly. And so on. In this case, Igaram should be a physical threat, and a top-tier magical swordsman. I can’t say EXACTLY what it should be, but his death should be an example of every rule you’ve made so far. Don’t trip up at the last second, leaving the readers with a bad taste in their mouths.

Character death is more about the readers than about what the story explicitly needs. It’s not that you can’t slaughter characters wantonly, it’s that people will stop reading if you offend what they expect out of your story. George RR Martin from my world gets a bad rap for all the murder, and he deserves it, but the world ALLOWS for the murder. His nihilistic muse forged a nihilistic world that doesn’t care, and encourages amorality and hedonism. Therefore, his books have one ending that’s perfect to it. Everyone dies and the white walkers reign supreme. Anything else won’t feel as appropriate to the readers, since the death has been so pervasive, with no one being safe, except Daenerys, that it can’t be any other way. Essentially, I’m saying that if he doesn’t kill her in the end, then he named her as arbitrarily safe, and violated the only rule of his world: Everyone Dies.

But if everyone can die, the story becomes not a question of ‘If’ but ‘When’. Therefore, treat every life as precious and give weight to each death according to its need, so that a reader is not offended by the cheapness of life. You can tell the superversiveness or subversiveness of a work by this point.

Now please, let me die.

You place the screaming head back into the Lazarus mosh-pit and return to your study, satisfied you made the right choices within your story. You shall feast in the halls of Demagogue and enjoy the wine of success. Surely, nothing can stop the ascendancy of your literary star.

Next Week: Time Shenanigans Part 1: Don’t Ride the Temporal Tiger

 

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