Monday, 16 March 2015

Why heroes must die

One of the things that set Game of Thrones apart was the death of the hero at the end of the first
season. This was a bold, well-judged move by the writer, and one which made so many readers and viewers want to see what happened next.

It used to be that heroes didn't die, to the point that it felt they couldn't die. There was also a practical reason, since often the story was in the hero's point of view, so how could the book/film continue if they were no longer there?

In my own Eden Paradox series I've killed off a number of heroes along the way, but when I got to the last book, Eden's Endgame, I knew I had to be bolder, take the leap, and kill off one of the main protagonists who had survived all three books up to this point. But why? Well, here are the main reasons:

1. If you keep playing Russian Roulette, you eventually take a bullet in the brain
I realized this while watching the Deerhunter as a young boy. I was shocked when one of the heroes actually died during the famous Russian Roulette scene. Having grown up on Star Trek and Tarzan, I felt sure they would all make it out of there alive. But it made sense to me, even then, especially since it was about Vietnam.
In all four of my books, the stakes are always high and getting higher, so inevitably even the heroes will be cut down.

2. We remember fallen heroes
If heroes die heroically, selflessly, giving up their lives for others, we respect them for that, and we remember them. I realized this from fans of the books who asked me to somehow bring back certain heroes who were killed off 'before their time'. The fans had a deep attachment to these characters even after reading two more books where they did not appear. In the last book, several heroes are killed, one of whom was not a major character, but his death has had quite an impact on the readers, and several said they wanted to go back and re-read the earlier books, to read more about him, because in their minds he has become a more significant character, someone they want to know better.

If you've read the Dune series, which characters do you remember? Usually it is Paul Atreides, the Baron Harkonnen, and the fallen hero, Duncan Idaho. And if you're a Star Trek Next Generation fan, you'll undoubtedly remember Tasha Yar, who was killed senselessly in Season One, yet her memory lingered so much they kept bringing versions of her back occasionally in episodes throughout the rest of the series.

3. It raises the stakes for those who are left behind
At the end of the first Lord of the Rings movie, Gandalf is killed. In fact he isn't dead, and does come back, but it greatly increases the tension in the first half of the second book/film, and the surviving characters struggle to find their way without their leader. It forces people who are not normally heroic, but are ordinary - to step up to the challenge.

Frank Herbert's Dune series also has plenty of fallen heroes, but when Paul Atreides loses first his father, and then later on, Duncan Idaho, both of them heroic figures, these losses shape him and force him to grow fast - and very convincingly - into becoming the rebel leader on Arrakis. This transition from a young, slightly-spoiled man into a tough uncompromising leader would not have been credible without such losses. Similarly in my own books, the death of a significant hero in the last book steels one of the other characters to finally become the hero the situation demands.

4. It makes it matter to the reader
I have readers who read my writing prior to publication. When my first reader came across the death of one of the major heroes at the book's half-way point, he called me. "You can't do this. Change it!" I didn't. It's a turning point for the book, and for all the characters, and for the readers. It's no longer a yarn, because this hero has been around since the beginning, has come through thick and thin, and is suddenly gone. It makes it more real. When this one dies, you sit up, and think like one of the character says, 'Now we're really screwed.' The villains have crossed a line. There's no going back now. When a hero falls, you know more blood will follow, sooner or later.

5. Because fiction is about reality
And in reality heroes die, all the time. Watch the news. Look around. Heroes are assassinated, or they become corrupt. Does that sound cynical? I watched American Sniper recently, and though I have plenty of issues with snipers, he was in a way a hero (as was his counterpart during the conflict, to the other side), and it was moving seeing the film footage of people lining the streets for his funeral, especially those crippled by the war. Heroes can be relatively ordinary people who stand up for their beliefs and pay the ultimate price. That's tough, and it's life. Its why I don't play video games anymore, by the way, because for me they're not about life. In my last book, Eden's Endgame, there's a character called Petra. She's not a hero, far from it, she's like you and me, but she's prepared to die, and one of my reviewers picked out the scene where she is almost killed, because it's her defining moment; her life, a fiction until then, suddenly comes into sharp focus and becomes reality.

6. It can make the ending more satisfying
Well, it's not a done deal, but all the reviews so far have said that of the last book. The cadence of the intersecting story lines  at the end is stronger because of the sacrifices that occurred earlier in the book. Here's a secret about how I wrote this series, which an Amazon reviewer spotted after reading the third one, Eden's Revenge. There are three threads running through all four of my books, and at the end of each book they meet, and at the start of each new book they split. But Eden's Endgame is the last book. To achieve the crescendo I wanted to deliver to the readers, I had a hero die in each story thread, in fact, two. There are thirty-one chapters in the last book, and seven chapters from the end you won't see how they can escape the approaching doom that is tearing the galaxy apart. But there is a way. With most of the heroes gone, those left behind, like you and me, have to rise to the challenge, because after all, there's little choice. Heroes aren't sitting around waiting for an opportunity to be heroic, heroes are forged by circumstance. And in the end, some heroes must die, to make way for new ones.

The Eden Paradox Series
The Eden Paradox
Eden's Trial
Eden's Revenge
Eden's Endgame

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