The gnarled woman leaned on the shovel, sweat glistening her brow as she pointed to the headstone growing out of her garden of graves.
“Over there is Charlie P. Marks. Handsome fellow. The third part of a love triangle, he was. Turns out he just dragged down the story.” She tapped her shovel on the hole she was standing in. “This grave is for a poor girl named Leticia Cragg. Poor girl. Couldn’t decide if she was a villain or sidekick. Just waffled around in the way, hiding the real story.
“Those graves are where adorable pets are buried. They waddle around a moment, adorable and making the protagonist relatable, but then are forgotten for pages and pages. When readers ask, ‘Where’d the dog go?’ and the writer can’t answer it, the poor dog ends up here, buried and forgotten.”
She patted her dirt-encrusted fingers on the girl’s arm. “Don’t you worry, though. Some of these folk will come to life again. There may come a day where Miss Cragg and Mr. Marks fall in love through the cleverness of a dog. It could be a lovely story. You never do know.”
Many a writer’s imagination has a battlefield where ideas and drafts have been played out. The ground is littered with the threads of ideas that never fully took form, cities and civilizations which remain half-built, and meandering subplots falling to waste. Characters, extracted from their original tale, are now wandering and trying to find another narrative to call home.
I have many of these characters: Best friends who became inessential, siblings who had no personality, quirky side-characters who were there are more show than substance, pets who were often forgotten.
Some characters have fared better than these wandering souls. Some have either found a new home where they are more fully fleshed out. Others are re-grafted into their initial story, pushing forward with a greater purpose.
There are other characters who remain in their native narrative, who play a great purpose until reaching a climactic point. Then, the narrative flows on and the main character has grown past needing the minor character. What must be done with these now aimless characters? Should they be extricated, or should they be written out of the tale?
Or is it time for the character to die?
Has this character become more interesting in death and its repercussions than in the character’s own existence?
This question came to my mind this past few weeks, as several major characters died on television. This includes:
- Will Gardner (Josh Charles), The Good Wife
- Jason Neville (J. D. Pardo), Revolution
- James (Dan Bucatinsky), Scandal
- Neil / Baelfire (Dylan Schmid), Once Upon A Time
- And many people on The Walking Dead (which will soon follow with many more as Game of Thrones ramps up its new season)… This is probably why both shows are too gory for me.
In film and television series there are two reasons a character is slain by the cruel stroke of a writer’s keyboard:
- The actor’s contract has not been renewed
- Either because the actor is ready to move on to other projects, or because of conflict and drama on set.
- For narrative purposes (and often ratings boosts).
Below is a brief analysis of slain television and film characters, some recent and some long departed. Were these good storytelling choices, or opportunistic moments written for shock-value, or had the character lived past their story-potential?
Death By Contract
Will Gardner (Josh Charles), The Good Wife
Killed By: Shooting in a courtroom, by his own client.
Behind The Scenes: According to an article on EW.com, Josh Charles was already ready to move on to other projects at the end of Season 4. He was persuaded to stay on through most of Season 5, allowing the writers to give him a proper send-off.
Story-Potential: The Good Wife has made many bold moves this season, with the breaking off of a rival law firm, and an investigation into Peter Florrick’s election. With his death, even these uncertainties become more uncertain. Will characters who have drifted apart come together through his death, or will this create more rifts?
Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase), Community
Killed By: [I don’t remember, and I can’t find the info online]
Behind The Scenes: There has been long-standing conflict between Chase and the showrunners for Community, so it was little surprise his last full episode was Season 4. Death was the best way to write him out of the show.
Story-Potential: Pierce’s death allowed the writers to have a catalyst for Troy (Donald Glover) to leave the show, and for Jeff (Joel McHale) to learn to deal with aging. And, it allowed the entrance of another crotchety old man, but with a keener eye for reality, Professor Buzz Hickey (Jonathon Banks).
Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), Downton Abbey
Killed By: Car
Behind The Scenes: Dan Stevens wanted out of the show and to venture into new horizons. The writers gave him the opportunity.
Story-Potential: With Matthew Crawley’s death, Lady Mary can now have various love-triangles… Actually, confession: I need to watch Downton Abbey, and haven’t ventured in yet. I can only be addicted
George McFly (Crispin Glover), Back To The Future
Killed By: Biff, and timey-wimey-wibbly-wobbliness
Behind The Scenes: After the success of the first movie, Crispin Glover wanted a higher paycheck and more major role. Instead of agreeing, the film producers wrote him out of the sequels as much as possible. There’s a reason 2 and 3 only have George McFly in the background or at a distance.
Story-Potential: George McFly’s death is the inspiration for the dark, dystopian version of Hill Valley after Old Biff goes back in time to help Young Biff become rich. It is also his death which pushes Marty and drives him to keep pushing to go back to the past to save the future.
Death By Plotline
Neil / Baelfire (Dylan Schmid), Once Upon A Time
Killed By: Sacrificing himself to resurrect/restore his father (it’s complicated).
Story-Potential: While it appeared the current half of this season was gearing up for a love triangle between Emma, Hook, and Neil, that has been put to rest. I may upset some fans, but I never found Neil a compelling character. His purpose always seemed more of a motivator for other characters – the drive for Rumplestiltsken to have Regina make the curse, the father of Henry, and so on. In fact, he suffers from a Damsel-In-Distress problem, all ways the rescued, rarely the rescuer.
With his death, the evilness of the Wicked Witch is further proven, Rumplestiltsken’s return to stability seems less hopeful, Emma has a chance to mourn, and Hook has a better chance at winning Emma’s affections. (Though, considering the three men Emma has had romances with in the show have either ended up dead or as a flying monkey, Hook may be better served looking elsewhere.)
Jason Neville (J. D. Pardo), Revolution
Killed By: Shot by love-interest after proving himself a brain-washed badguy.
Story-Potential: Jason’s father, Captain Neville, has always been the most interesting character on the show. Anything that can spur on his character into further villainy is good for the show. Also, Charlie has to deal with killing a man who was so nearly her friend/romantic interest.
Penny (Felicia Day), Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog
Killed By: Dr. Horrible’s Death Ray
Story-Potential: Joss Whedon likes killing characters people have grown attached to (see this list). I’m really mentioning this because I think the world needs the long-rumored sequel to Dr. Horrible. Penny could always come back as an evil clone. Whedon could always see if Neil Patrick Harris and Nathan Fillion are available during his next hiatus, since this is what he did during his last one:
Boromir (Sean Bean), The Fellowship of the Ring
Killed By: In one of Sean Bean’s more famous deaths, Boromir fights of a group of Uruk Hai in order to give the Hobbits a chance to escape and destroy the One Ring.
Story-Potential: Boromir’s sacrifice is made to redeem him after he is corrupted by the ring. It later plays into difficulties as Gandalf attempts to help Gondor defend itself from Sauron’s forces while Boromir’s father goes mad.
Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), Star Wars
Killed By: Darth Vader’s lightsaber (and only the second person killed by Vader in the film).
Story-Potential: In one of the behind-the-scenes documentaries I’ve watched, there was mention that George Lucas realized in an early draft of Star Wars: A New Hope that Obi-Wan would be standing in the side-lines without narrative purpose after escaping the Death Star. At that point, it is Luke’s time to take command and save the world.
With Obi-Wan’s death, he is able to “become more powerful than [Vader] can imagine”, by both driving Luke forward and being able to reach to him from beyond the grave. It is Obi-Wan’s sacrifice that adds emotional gravity to the first Star Wars film made, and leads the the darker emotional depths explored in The Empire Strike’s Back.
Most of these characters had reached a narrative point where only a major life-event could create enough story for them to continue. If not, they would soon weigh down the overall story, and become extraneous.
And thus, in death they become greater than in life, and thus we have one solution to our characters lost in the wastelands of creative development.
- Do you think any of these characters had become extraneous?
- What do you with characters that are dead weight?
- Does anyone else find it interesting that most of this list is men – including recently deceased characters? Am I missing slain female characters, or are there disproportionately less important female characters who have been killed off for ratings? Is this a symptom of the lopsided ratio of men to women in film and television?
- What is the best way to bring a character back to life?
Speaking of shows which often kill off major characters, there are growing discussions of a Battlestar Galactica reboot. The creator of the original series Glen A. Larsen is producing a film version in conjunction with Universal. I’m on the fence about this news. What do you think?