Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Levels of Death for Fictional Characters, Part II

So sgwordy entered the lair of Achievement Whoring and asked the good Dr to share his Levels of Death theory. Enjoy!

(NOTE: It's probably obvious for a topic like this but beware spoilers.)

Dr Musacha says...

If you missed Part I click here.

Level 2 – They killed X???  YOU BASTARDS!

Now it’s on.  A level 2 death involves a character who has been with us throughout most of the story.  They’re a major part of the narrative, with well-established backstory, personality, and motivations.  Essentially, we’re talking about anyone that you might refer to as “one of the main characters” WITHOUT being the main hero/heroine/villain.

The impact of a level 2 death cannot be overstated.  This is a character that we’ve grown to care about, identify with, and root for (wow, that was a lot of dangling prepositions).  Assuming that the writer has done his/her job properly, we are NOT going to like seeing this person die.  But see it we will, because level 2 deaths (unlike 3 and 4) pretty much never happen offscreen.  After all, the author is sacrificing an important character and obviously wants to reap the full emotional impact of that decision.

The following may seem counterintuitive, but bear with me: Level 2 deaths are the most critical ones to do correctly.  Period.  Now, you might be wondering how that’s possible since we have another level to go.  I’ll get there in a second, but understand that level 1 deaths are actually pretty easy.  But level 2?  They can make all the difference between pushing your narrative to a whole new level and completely derailing it, losing your audience forever.

The key point to understand is that your level 2 death may well mean killing the audience’s favorite character.  Think about it: if you ask someone who their favorite Star Wars character is, how many say Luke?  Sure, you need a compelling hero and villain, but people tend to gravitate to the side characters (at least the ones that are decently developed).  So when you off that person, it better be in a way that respects the bond that’s formed between said character and the audience.  NOTE: This is doubly true for characters in a series, because we’ve had all the more time to get attached.

An example from my own experience: I enjoyed most of Dancing with Wolves.  It was an interesting story (if a bit slow) and shot with a nice eye for the surrounding environment.  Then some jackass army officers take turns firing at Two-Socks, the wolf that keeps Dunbar company, killing the poor animal because it doesn’t know to run away.  Now, I get what the writer was going for here…he wants us to understand that the army officers are the bad guys so we’ll be happy when the Sioux kill them later.  Well you know what guy?  I already figured that out.  There was no damn reason to show Two Socks being unceremoniously murdered.  If you were looking for an emotional reaction, then you got one.  I loathe your crappy movie with every fiber of my being.  Was that what you wanted?

Level 2 deaths are pretty common with villains.  It’s usually the right hand man, who ironically is often tougher/more evil than the main bad guy.  Also note that level 2 deaths often happen late in the story, because they serve as the inspiration that the hero/heroine needs to vanquish his or her foes and achieve victory in their fallen comrade’s memory.

Other examples:
Mick/Apollo – Rocky III/IV
Dumbledore – Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
Obi-wan Kenobi – Star Wars
Count Rugen (the man with six fingers) – Princess Bride

Level 1 – And then there were two

Okay, it doesn’t HAVE to be two.  There are instances where there’s more than one main protagonist (though rarely is there more than one main villain).  Still, we’re definitely looking at the cream of the crop here.

Level 1 deaths happen almost exclusively at the climax of the story, largely because anyone suffering a level 1 death was so key to the plot that it can hardly go on without them.  Imagine if Darth Vader died in Return of the Jedi, but then there was another 45 minutes of faffing about on Endor fighting generic stormtroopers.  Anticlimactic, no?

Compared to level 2, level 1 deaths are actually pretty easy to write.  Most people expect the main villain to buy the farm at the end, so it will hardly come as a shock.  And as for the hero, the idea of the tragic protagonist who sacrifices himself at the end of the story is so old that a guy named William Shakespeare had mastered it back when humans were still trying to invent fire (NOTE: this article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of sgwordy, her parent company, or historical accuracy in any way).

There are too many examples to count, but here are a few:
Butch and Sundance – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Maximus – Gladiator
Hillary – Beaches
Captain John Miller – Saving Private Ryan
William Wallace – Braveheart (this is historical I suppose, but still)
The Predator – Predator
Thelma and Louise – I’m hoping you can guess

So there you have it.  sgwordy…do YOU have a favorite example of one of the Levels of Death?

Why yes, I do! I'm actually going to include something for each level:

Level 4 - All to whom Terry Pratchett made this most hilarious dedication and this poor bastard who did not want it.

Level 3 - I'm gonna cheat a little on this one because I'm choosing a character in my own work in progress. Two reasons: the first - it was this character's death (and your reading of it) that first brought the Levels of Death theory to my attention and the second - because he truly died as he lived, serving the plot.

Level 2 - Since this is the trickiest of all I'm going to give an example of it done badly and an example of it done well. The done badly example was the offing of The Syndicate in The X-Files. I'm a believer (Mulder would be so proud:) that there was no way to do this well and that it being done at all was a mistake. The done well example is Amylin (played by Paul Reubens) in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

side note: What I find interesting about level 2 is that the character's relationship with the audience is more important than the character's relationship to the heroine/hero when it comes to a death that will not alienate the audience.

Level 1 - Elphaba in Wicked by Gregory Maguire. Holy damn that was some kind of memorable.

Anyone else have some particularly good or bad examples of the levels?


  1. This was a great set of posts. Hmm... a few of my favorites that come to mind at the moment:

    _Level 2_
    Red Grant - From Russia With Love
    Charlie Vincent - Black Rain
    Jack Vincennes - L.A. Confidential

    _Level 1_
    Archibald Cunningham - Rob Roy
    Dudley Smith - L.A. Confidential
    Elliott Marston - Quigley Down Under

    Thanks for this.

    p.s., great rant about Two-Socks, BTW.

  2. Thanks for including some of your own level examples!