[WARNING: MILD SPOILERS FOR “STRANGER THINGS” AND CURRENT MARVEL COMICS FOLLOW]
You’re watching a long-running television show, or reading a book or comic full of well-established, beloved characters, and suddenly there’s an episode (or chapter or issue) where they start dying. By the time the second or third shuffles off the mortal coil, the shock subsides and you settle back waiting for the inevitable smash-cut to someone waking up from a nightmare, or Uatu the Watcher’s bald, entoga’ed visage holding forth dramatically on the many twists and turns taken by alternate Earths. In any case, you’re not really worried that what you’re seeing is going to stick, unless perhaps Joss Whedon or George R. R. Martin is involved. Then again I’ve talked before about how their particular proclivities can arguably lead to more exhaustion than tension over time.
Still, if you’re writing novels in a setting where an element of deadly danger should be present, sooner or later you have to face the question of what you’re willing to do (or not do) to preserve that theme. More importantly, how are you going to do so in a way where your audience actually gives a crap? The original Star Trek series had their infamous “red shirt” security details whose sole purpose was to die horribly on an away mission in order to establish the deadliness of the threat being faced without harming one of the command crew, but over time that became such a joke that to this day “redshirt” is a slang term for a disposable character. They hardly ever had names, either, unless you count Kirk yelling a concerned “Johnson?!” as their gargled scream erupted from the commlink. Poor ol’ Ensign Expendable. We hardly knew ye.
On the other hand, we don’t tend to like it when someone suddenly joins in with the cast we know and love and gets focus, because often they’re still going to be gone soon. It just means that instead of being a victim they might be the murderer/saboteur/etc. But what’s the alternative? Are you really prepared to permanently mess with Spock, McCoy and/or Kirk? Are you prepared to receive death threats over having Captain America declare “hail Hydra” or having Hawkeye kill the Hulk? Even though comics fans more than anyone should know that everything will be retconned within a few years?
Sounds like a lot less trouble to kill off people no one cares about — but even then, there can be surprises…
If haven’t watched Stranger Things yet, too bad, you had your spoiler warning at the start of this blog. But that’s Barb, and Barb dies. Barb in fact is last scene being dragged off by a monster at the very start of episode three in an eight episode series. Up to that point, I don’t imagine that her total amount of scenes measures more than five minutes of screen time. She was just Nancy’s nerdier, more grounded friend, there mostly to be sacrificed to the plot, but with just enough character to her that we would hopefully feel a twinge of something when she meets her fate.
In Barb’s case the showrunners unexpectedly did their job too well and inspired an obsession of such fervor that people are unironically calling for Barb-centric spinoffs and criticizing the Duffer Brothers for their mistreatment of a beloved icon.
Lest we forget: FIVE MINUTES.
Now yes, this means Barb is the very definition of a “gold minor”, but because of how Netflix works her fate was sealed the moment Season 1 became available, for better or worse. She’s that dream of having a character you devoted so little time to managing to have an impactful demise, but also that nightmare of fans giving you a huge amount of grief over it that you couldn’t in your wildest imaginings have suspected.
I remember wrestling over just this sort of problem way back when with Zeke in our first chapter, but thankfully when he met his end it seemed to achieve that hoped for balance of people commenting “that’s messed up” or “aw, I liked him” without getting too legitimately torn up about it. Of course, that might just be a function of having a much smaller audience. I admit the other McCartys since then have much more served a role of cannon fodder where I didn’t expect a whole lot of reaction to their fatal encounters, or in cases like Muriel or Cousin Bob a reaction of “about time!”
But should I have let Brett die rather than just be injured? Has my treating most of the McCartys as background characters/antagonists lessened the effect of the Huachucas sticking their heads on pikes and doing heaven knows what else? I haven’t yet revealed what’s happened to Darlene or Eustace, and I know at least a few of you have some investment in the answers to that. In any case I reserve the right to do something really upsetting, because… Huachucas.
Or maybe a couple weeks on a Hawaiian beach will mellow me out. We’ll see what impact is in store.