Killing time: on character deaths

WARNING: May contain spoilers. I have done my best to avoid TSSH spoilers, but I accept no responsibility if you are too smart for your own good and inadvertently deduce key plot twists. When it comes to Game of Thrones, if you haven’t yet seen the ending to season one you only have yourself to blame. As for Offspring: everyone knows Patrick is DEAD. (Or they do now.)

Some weeks ago I wrote about how I was going to challenge my prejudices to all things fantasy and attempt to watch Game of Thrones. Despite predictions otherwise, I continued to watch beyond the first episode, largely because of two things: giant wolves and John Snow.  As I approached the end of the season I felt it was okay but given the choice between GoT and Mad Men or Breaking Bad, GoT would lose.

And then the protagonist was killed.

Yep, he of impressive coats, flowing hair and thoughtful gazing had his head chopped off before our very eyes. By a sadistic anime character who bares striking resemblance to a guy I had a major crush on in university, no less.

It was this character’s death that made me want to keep watching. As a rule, writers don’t kill off their protagonists. I watched the scene leading up to Ned’s death in a detached state of boredom: the entire time speculating on how he was going to miraculously escape his demise. And then he didn’t.

images I didn’t know at the time that George R.R. Martin – GoT’s creator and possibly also deep-sea fishing trawler captain – has quite a knack for killing off major characters. But it was the fact that he had killed off his protagonist in the very first instalment which made me want to keep watching. He had created a huge problem for himself and I wanted to see how he would solve it.

I saw a session with Markus Zusak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival a few years ago, where he claimed that he wasn’t actually a very good writer, he was just good at solving problems. He said that his manuscripts were full of major flaws and problems and it was only his ability to fix these that made him any good. This really resonated with me. Story-writing at its core is about problem solving. At its most basic, you have a character at point A and you need to get them to point B.

Killing off a character can sometimes be the start of a problem, yet more often than not it’s the solution to one. I am quite a fan of Offspring. (These days less the ‘Keep em separated’ variety and more the TV show created by Deb Oswald. Although both have their merits). TV shows, especially free-to-air ones, that feature interesting and complex female leads are rare. If you are unsure of the value of Offspring I will offer only one argument, a quote from the protagonist, Nina:

‘My fantasies usually involve men carrying bearskins.’

Enough said.

Anyone who has access to any form of social media will be aware that last week Oswald did the unthinkable and killed off the much-loved Patrick: Nina’s aesthetically pleasing partner and father of her soon-to-be-born child. Patrick was a major character. He wasn’t the protagonist and he wasn’t killed by a sadistic anime man-child (although this too would have been interesting) yet he was still a major player and his loss will provide a much-needed plot revamp. In what can only be described as an act of remarkable generosity, Oswald wrote a piece about her decision to literally write off Patrick on SMH. (This gives you an idea of the level of outrage directed at her from the show’s fans.) In the piece Oswald implies that Matthew le Nevez had to leave the show and they needed to find a plausible and satisfying way to facilitate this exit.

As GoT was a book series before it became a TV show, it’s only fair to assume that Martin wasn’t dealing with a similar issue. As a writer who absolutely does not plan a single thing, I can’t help but wonder if Martin knew all along as he was writing the first book that Ned would die. (If you know the answer, tell me!) Or did he feel that the plot was getting a bit flat and decide to pull the rug out?

For my own part I wrote the death of one of my own characters in complete surprise. I typed the words with my own hands, yet I felt like a helpless witness to the event, practically screaming with disbelief as this character breathed their last breath. So why do it? Well, things were getting a bit flat plot-wise and I figured if I could make myself cry there was a fair chance I could get the same emotional response from my readers. I don’t think people will like it. But that’s not the point.

I was horrified when lovely Patrick died and when noble Ned lost his head. (No rhyme intended, I swear.) I didn’t want either of these things to happen. But when they did I found a whole heap of new respect for their writers. Because, good writing isn’t about taking the reader on a lovely journey they want to take, it’s about convincing them to come with you to a place they’d rather not visit at all.

This is why I will be eagerly awaiting season four of Game of Thrones and why I will be sobbing solidly between the hours 8.30 and 9.30 tonight.