Monday, December 22, 2008

OFF WITH THEIR HEADS: villains, conflict and killing off characters

A couple of disclaimers.

First, this blog will contain SPOILERS for Gabriel’s Ghost, Shades of Dark and the movie, Serenity.

Second, I know I’m not remotely in the category of Joss Whedon. The man is brilliant. Beyond brilliant. Don’t take my questions and/or criticisms of his work as anything more than the ramblings of an author looking to make sense of the craft of fictional entertainment.

That being said, you by now may have surmised I watched the movie, Serenity, recently, and am somewhat perplexed over the death of Wash’s character. I watched the movie, not just because I thoroughly enjoyed Firefly, and not just because Whedon provides one helluva good romp with his stuff, but because I wanted to learn. One of the downsides of being an author—and YA author Stacey Kade (watch for her debut with Hyperion in 2010--right now she's still SFR author Stacey Klemstein) and I were chatting about this—is that reading for pleasure seems to happen less and less. It’s hard to read—or watch—something in your genre and not analyze characterization, plot, conflict and the like. So I found myself last weekend watching Serenity with one eye and breaking it down with the other: oh, bit of a plot twist, there. Oh, some layered on characterization here. Oh, major plot conflict coming up. Oh, here’s the regroup and revise scene…

Then, sitting in the cockpit of Serenity, just having crash-landed on the world of Miranda, Wash gets lanced. Skewered.

And I go, WTF?

Yes, obviously, it was an emotional moment. And writing is about emotional moments. “It’s the author’s job to manipulate the emotions of the reader,” said writing guru Dwight Swain. And I subscribe to that. But it’s also said that fiction must be more logical than real life.

And Wash’s death wasn’t plot-logical. It was emotional, no doubt. It wrenched the reader. But it wasn’t logical to the plot and didn’t create or improve on the growth of a major character.

Emotion for emotion’s sake is not enough in fiction. When it’s done like that, it becomes a cheap shot. Or what writing guru Jack Bickham refers to as “dropping an alligator through the transom.”

Book’s death, on the other hand, was plot logical. It impacted heavily on Mal and that was shown clearly. Mal was the one to find Book, was the one to hold him as he died. Prior scenes showed their friendship and their backstory conflict. Book’s death was a clear catalyst to Mal.

Wash’s wasn’t. For one thing, Wash and Mal had no backstory conflict and though they were clearly friends, it was a calm friendship for the most part. There wasn’t a Wash-Mal issue as there was a Book-Mal issue. Wash was a minor character who served a great role and was also the husband of Zoe, another minor character.

The two major characters, to me, in Serenity, were Mal and River. Writing gurus always ask: Whose story is it? And that’s a huge question that must be answered as you craft your fiction piece. If you don’t know whose story you’re telling, your piece will wander all over the galaxy, lost, in search of coherent and cohesive plot and conflict.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg details much of this on her Sime~Gen site:

The main POV character is the one who ACTS FIRST -- the person attempting to impose their agenda on the course of events -- to get things to come out in their own favor. The VILLAIN or ANTAGONIST is the one who is acted-upon and objects.

River, through help from her brother, Simon, acts to escape the psychic detention facility that’s held her and tortured her. They end up—and much of this is backstory—on Mal’s ship, Serenity. But it’s Mal who acts—when the Alliance assassin confronts him, demanding River’s surrender—to tell the Alliance to take a hike and it’s Mal who acts to thwart the Alliance. Zoe, Jayne, Wash, Simon and the rest are all minor characters. The two main POV characters—and most of the movie’s scenes are with one or the other as key—are Mal and River.

Given that, Wash’s death is useless. Simon’s death would have made more sense. River is a main POV character. Simon is her beloved brother. His death would have forced her into “character growth.” Wash’s death doesn’t force with Mal or River into character growth (any more than had already occurred.)

So to me, Wash’s death was a cheap shot, basic stage door faux-trauma simply for the shock value. As a movie-goer, I thought it was an exciting, emotional scene. As an author, I thought it was sloppy.

Now, Stacey, much more a Whedon-ite than I am, had a bit of a different take on the matter:

“Wash...I probably wouldn't have killed him off, no. But here's the thing, it does, in a sick and twisted way, which is Joss's way, make sense for him to be the one to die. He is the MOST innocent out of all of those involved. And Mal...well, I think it all relates back to the Battle of Serenity in the war between the Alliance and the Brown Coats. Mal believed in the war, thought he was fighting on the side of good. He was in charge of a platoon. He and Zoe fought and continued to fight even after the battle was essentially over. Not only did they lose, but he and Zoe were the only ones who walked away. All the others reporting to him died. After that, Mal withdrew. He gave up his white hat, ceased to see himself as a good guy. He wanted nothing to do with helping others or getting involved in any cause. He looked out only for himself and what benefited him. He got involved in helping others only when forced by circumstances and the fact that he couldn't completely tamp down his do-gooder (for lack of a better term) conscience. He did not want the responsibility of all those lives on his "boat." In fact, Mal would have preferred, I think, to die rather than to be responsible for their deaths (see ep "out of gas").

So, in this situation, here we are again, Mal leading innocents into hopeless battle. He's taking on that white hat again, and his hands are bloodied by the deaths of those who follow him. And he's not going to quit this time.He has to confront his fear that he's going to cause the death of all these people and lose AGAIN. He's being forced to be the hero and he's going to go through with it, even if it kills him.”

I can see Stacey’s point but notice how much it relies on backstory—television episodes of Firefly, that the movie-goer may not have seen. The author can’t assume they’ve seen them. So to build a huge emotional twist like Wash’s death based on backstory unavailable to the viewer at the moment strikes me as… less than good. The movie should be able to stand on its own as a cohesive unit.

Now, it may be there were earlier scenes between Wash and Mal that were cut. That happens all the time and that’s a failing of any media—books included—that have time or word count restrictions. You have X amount of pages to do something or X amount of minutes to do something.

But to me, then, if you cut the prequel, the rationale for a major character’s death, then cut the death scene. Or rewrite it. Wash could simply have been seriously injured, his injuries providing conflict to the fleeing crew (Drag him along or leave him behind? Slow us down? Save his life?) and Mal. I would have bought into that fully. It might have even created more conflict and tension.

Wash’s death to me was quick, final and senseless.

I know. People die for senseless reasons all the time in real life. But read what I wrote above: fiction must be more logical than real life.

(BTW, Jacqueline has an excellent critique of an episode of Star Trek: Voyager in a similar vein. I couldn’t find it on the Sime~Gen website but I’m sure it’s there and perhaps she’ll post a link.)

So how does this fit in with my books?

Two characters. One I killed off, one I didn’t.

Del in Shades of Dark. Ren in Gabriel’s Ghost.

I really hated killing off Del because he was a hugely fun character. But Sully, a main character, had to have growth, had to experience sacrifice, had to be motivated to reach deeper inside himself. The two main motivations for Sully in Shades of Dark were Del and Chaz. I took both away from him near the end of the book. Chaz, of course, he regained. Del had to die. But Del had to die not only for Sully’s growth and lesson but to partially redeem Del as a character and yes, to be true to the character of Del as I built him. He wasn’t as much an evil character as a selfish one. But his selfishness was, to a great extent, cultural. As was his penchant for sacrifice and, in the end, sacrifice he does. He dies so Sully can live. Which, based on Del’s upbringing, mindset and culture, was exactly the way things should be.

I took pains to prequel—lightly so but I did it—that this was a possible outcome all through the book. Del’s line of “…and I shall walk again with kings…” and his adherence to Stolorth traditions set up completely the book’s end. Rash’mh han enqerma. A sacrifice in exchange for an unspeakable wrong. This was one of Del’s guiding principles—and yes, villains can have principles—and it was the logic behind his death.

So was Sully’s challenge to Del:

“You’ve told me many times I still need training. That a rogue Kyi like me is capable of utter destruction if I’m not careful. Then heed your own warning. Don’t force me to find out just what I’m capable of. Because when the dust settles, I will be the one left standing. And you know that.”

The character I initially killed off then rewrote and didn’t was Ren in Gabriel’s Ghost. Again, I was looking for a catalyst for change for the main character, Sully. But at the point I would have done it—and I’m grateful to the crit partners who pointed this out none too gently—it would have been more for emotional manipulation that character growth. It would have, in essence, been a cheap shot. The timing and placement were wrong and going back and rereading the old pages, I could see where Linnea the author had run out of ideas so, hey, let’s kill someone.

I ended up not doing so because Ren, alive, forced much more character growth on Sully then Ren’s death ever could have.

It’s a very easy trap to fall into when writing: let’s just throw on a bunch of actions that engender scary and unhappy emotions, and keep the reader reading. But eventually that’s exactly what the story will feel like: things just thrown on. More is not always better. In fact in fiction, more often produces crap. Conflict must come with a why, not just an ouch.

Maybe next week I’ll touch on why the capitulation of the Alliance assassin at the end of Serenity also set my writerly teeth on edge.

Unless you all want to open that dialogue here too…

(and I still think Joss Whedon is a freakin’ genius, and if I could produce stuff even half as good as he does, I’d be a happy camper…)


SHADES OF DARK, the sequel to Gabriel’s Ghost, July 2008 from RITA award-winning author, Linnea Sinclair, and Bantam Books:

I watched Sully’s eyes snap to black, his lips, thin. His hand clasping mine tightened. Shock gave way to anger, which gave way to something more primal, more male. It tasted of jealousy, possessiveness, dominance.

And all I had said was, “Hello, Sully. I just met Del.”

I poured the encounter into his mind almost as fast as he retrieved it. I held nothing back, not Del’s seductive handsomeness nor the power that fairly seethed beneath his surface, nor the ease with which he rendered me helpless, folding the Grizni back around my wrist.


  1. I loved Serenity the TV series but did not like Serenity the movie for all the reasons you listed. Good to know someone else felt as I did.

  2. Well, you've already heard my take on the Wash skewering. I also thought, maybe it was done to give Zoe a little more depth in a film where we don't see much from her. The entire film felt like Whedon was trying to give fans of each character "something" while trying to wrap up a story arc that was intended to be drawn out over several successful television seasons.

  3. But Lisa, I don't think it gave Zoe more depth. She would have fought just as hard in subsequent scenes if Wash was alive but injured, behind her. And the final final scene where Mal asks her about the ship (obliquely) referencing herself...something about "can she take it?" and she say something about she's bruised and injured but she'll make it...that's not enough for me to justify Wash's death.

    Especially as there's not been another movie. Star Wars, yes, these kinds of things happened because we knew the next movie was in the works (ie: Han Solo trapped in carbonite...). We have no reason to believe Mal and company will reappear again. So to me, Wash's death was senseless.

    JC, what did you think about the assassin's "change of heart" at movie's end? Just curious...


  4. Just jumping in here...I think, at the time, Joss & Co were hoping that Serenity would do well enough for another movie. Not positive, though.

    After all, the show did not do well, ratings-wise, on television but the sales of the series on DVD is what, I believe, convinced studio execs to greenlight Serenity.

    I would have liked to see a movie in which Zoe perhaps started to question her loyalty to Mal. Not sure who'd win that fight. Actually, yeah, I am! :)

  5. I agree Linnea. I never said the attempt at giving Zoe more depth was actually successful. :) But, despite his brilliance, I just wondered if that was what Whedon was going for.

    Yeah, I'm pretty sure more films were hoped for, if not a return of the series. Again, not successful, but I seem to remember reading interviews mentioning those hopes.

  6. I have often had trouble with Jacqueline's principle that the protagonist is the one who acts first ("sets the agenda," as she sometimes puts it) and the antagonist is the one who reacts. That seems to contradict the "hero's journey" inciting incident defined as the "call to adventure"; in most of the genre novels I've read, the protagonist is goaded into action by some event that shakes up his or her settled life -- the moment when everything changes, to cite another principle Jacqueline taught me. In most cases, the protagonist would have no reason to act unless he or she were somehow under attack and forced to change. (And the next stage in the hero's journey is often the refusal of the call; my novel FROM THE DARK PLACES works out that way, although I didn't plan it consciously. The protagonist's little girl is kidnapped by the agents of the dark forces; after her newfound mentors help Kate get her child back, she thinks she can retreat from the whole situation and be safe, but the dark forces attack again, so that she has no choice but to embrace her own occult powers and do battle against evil.) Surely this almost universal trope can't be fundamentally flawed?

  7. Margaret:

    You're confusing two genre formats and plot and story features.

    The protagonist is the one who makes the FIRST MOVE in the game, but not necessarily on page 1 (depending on the genre).

    In the Hero's Journey the inciting incident happens TO the protag, but the protag MAKES THE FIRST PLOT MOVE by choosing a response to that incident.

    In films of that Hero's Journey form, the inciting incident happens on page 10. Then there's a debate of what to do until page 25.

    The story and the plot are NOT THE SAME THING. Art works best when they are indistinguishable to the untrained eye, but they are never the same thing.

    Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT and SAVE THE CAT GOES TO THE MOVIES (mostly the second of the two) delineates precisely the most successful types of story/plot mixes. His "beat sheet" brings them together, and the whole idea works for novels today.

    The reason the film industry formats work for novels today is that "marketing" and purely for profit commercial interests have taken over "publishing" (on paper). They need to sell to the broadest possible audience to make that profit, and as a result publish those things that fit the most popular formats.

    The Hero's Journey is only ONE of the formats Snyder has fingered.

    The "beat sheet" for a novel though is just a little different. And in the world of "the novel" it is not only possible but desireable to have more than the genres Blake has found in the "opens everywhere" movie.

    The current commercial structure of on-paper publishing mitigates against departing from Blake's discovered (not imposed; discovered) formulae.

    And don't rail against the idea of a formula per se. You don't have to limit what you want to write in order to fit a "formula" -- but rather the other way around.

    You figure our what you want to write, THEN examine what formula it belongs to!

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  8. Linnea,

    Sorry for the delay in answering. I have been off visiting the family for Christmas and just got home. Apparently the assassin's "change of heart" at movie's end did not bother me as much as Wash's death. I saw the movie when it came out and I did not even remember that the assassin had a change of heart.

  9. Anonymous5:19 PM EST

    I read recently that Whedon and company are still hoping for more Firefly movies- which is why Whedon hasn't written any sequel comics yet. And I assume if he find out he really can't do any more movies, then he will continue the stories in the comics, much like he has with Buffy and Angel.

    A lot of Firefly fans on the official board thought that Wash was killed off to open up the door to a Mal and Zoe romance because they think stable, happy couples are boring.

    Anyway, I totally agree with you. I thought killing off Wash was a cheap shot and I had a lot of problems with it. I even refused to see the movie for years because I read spoilers about Wash's death. Book's death made sense to me and it worked in the story. Wash's just seemed pointless. Whedon has become almost predictable with killing off characters now and while at first, it was a surprise when characters like Jenny Calendar died, now I just expect major character deaths in his work.