Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Character Assassination

Certainly this week, there’s been a lot of increasing chatter about the upcoming finale of the tv show LOST (it’s penultimate episode is this evening in the US). Now, I’ve liked this show from the get-go and am excited, anxious and incredibly curious to see how the show runners have decided to end it – but I’ll tell you one reason in particular I have really enjoyed and appreciate this show.

Characters die.

Left and right, good-guys, bad-guys and not-quite-sure guys have all bitten the dust over the course of the last six seasons. Take a look at this table from Lostipedia (SPOILERS IF YOU’RE NOT UP-TO-DATE) about the major characters (those who get “starring” in the opening credits, not guest appearances or “featuring”). Of the 29 “starring” characters, a whopping 17 had died. Even of those that I would call the most important “Top 15” characters, about half have shed their mortal coil.

And I think this is great. Why? Because not knowing whether your favorite character might or might not survive makes for great dramatic tension. Many of us loved “The X-Files” – but did we ever really worry that Mulder or Scully weren’t going to escape that week’s monster? And so the episode became about curiously following the characters we loved through interesting adventures – which is fun, but loses a chance at real tension. In fact, I would argue that the great dramatic failure of The Lord of the Rings is that in this incredible epic story in which the very fate of the world balances, only one of the nine major characters bites it -- that’s Boromir, and it’s because there needed to be some sort of karmic retribution for briefly giving into the Ring’s corruption.
In the same vein, I tip my hat to JK Rowling for not falling for the conceit of a completely happy ending in the war versus He Who Must Not Be Named – she’d knocked off enough important people in Harry’s life that in reading “Deathly Hallows” you weren’t really sure who was going to make it through to the other side.

Now, it’s not easy to lose a character that you’ve grown attached to. What this means for a show, book or movie series (anyone really worried about James Bond getting out of that inferno? I didn’t think so) is that the creators have to have the willingness not to hang onto a cash-cow character forever and the courage that their story-telling is so compelling that the reader-viewer is willing to hang in through something traumatic endings – but I think the emotional bang you get for them is more than worth it.

Do you agree or am I just morbid?


Budd said...

I would agree. I like George R.R. Martins Song of Ice and Fire series for much the same reason.

Budd said...

I think V read your post.

SteveB said...

Yes -- I'd been thinking about George RR Martin as I was writing this post -- I think that's one reason I like those books so much (you know, when they're actually written) -- is that anything seems to be fair game.