Thursday, April 10, 2014

Anybody Can Die?

The season premiere of the TV adaptation of GAME OF THRONES brings to mind its reputation as a fictional universe in which anybody can die (and probably will)—justified, as I know from having read the novels. Once upon a time, major continuing characters in TV programs didn’t die. If an actor died or quit, either the character vanished without comment or a new actor assumed the role, e.g., “the other Darren” on BEWITCHED. When it first became possible for characters to die, the event was still rare and noteworthy—Edith on ALL IN THE FAMILY, Tessa on HIGHLANDER, Catherine on BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Dr. Greene on ER. And when the deceased was one of the stars as in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, the series itself didn’t long survive her. A couple of secondary characters died at the beginning of the second season of FOREVER KNIGHT, but when major players later started dropping like flies, the show was doomed, rapidly accelerating toward a series finale that wiped out all but one of the stars (apparently). By the way, I wonder whether the gradual acceptance of the possibility of character death had some relation to the shift from the old pattern of isolated episodes that could be viewed in almost any order to the prevalence of well-developed story arcs in contemporary TV series?

With such programs as BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and ANGEL, audiences became hardened to the premise that “anybody can die.” This possibility adds suspense and imitates the unpredictability of real life, in which status or virtue doesn’t confer immunity to death. In print fiction, we see how poignant this approach can become through the loss of central characters in the Harry Potter novels. However, I wonder about fictional universes in which not only is nobody immune to death, it’s a near certainty that any character the reader gets attached to is doomed. The major character death at the end of GAME OF THRONES (the first novel) shocked me because I mistook that character for the series protagonist, who by normal literary conventions can’t die until the climax of the series (if at all). Does the “anybody can die and most of them probably will” approach take “realism” too far in the other direction? Granted, protagonist status shouldn’t necessarily give a character a charmed life; yet does repeatedly killing off characters after luring readers into becoming emotionally invested in them also run the risk of becoming predictable and clich├ęd?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt


  1. Margaret, you just brought the banking concept of "Too Big To Fail" to science fiction/fantasy!

    Or not.

    Thank you. Will you post on Moral Hazard next? Or shall I?


  2. Please elaborate on Moral Hazard!