Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Rumours of My Demise...

by Stuart Sharp

This was very nearly an article about medieval visions of the afterlife before I realised that A: nobody would be able to find the books in question, and B: only about a dozen people other than me would ever want to. If it turns out that someone does, I’d recommend leafing through Bede’s ecclesiastical history until you find the vision of Drycthelm. Even Dante didn’t have his hero using a vase to bat away balls of fire like some infernal version of Wimbledon.

As entertaining as this particular near death experience undoubtedly is, it’s probably fair to say that fictional characters do the whole back from the dead routine with rather more panache; or at least with greater frequency.

Very often the "death" in question is only an apparent one, and it’s a basic rule of most fiction never to believe a death until the author shows you the body. Sherlock Holmes going over the Reichenback falls is an obvious example of this kind of faked death for extra drama. The "death" is believable because Holmes and Moriarty are so well matched that it makes a kind of sense that both would have to die in a struggle producing the death of one. You’ve got to wonder though, if they were so clever, what were they doing having a fight on slippery rocks near a waterfall in the first place?

The biggest problem for most authors here, aside from convincing us that the character is actually dead, is the explanation that follows their reappearance. From Holmes to Gandalf, every suddenly revived hero has to come complete with a lengthy explanation as to both why they didn’t die and why they didn’t get in touch as soon as they’d realised they hadn’t.

The advantages of the device are fairly straightforward. It allows for surprise later on when the character reappears, it creates drama at the thought of a favourite character’s death without actually having to kill them off, and it creates an opportunity for things to happen offstage. It also has the advantage of temporarily getting rid of characters who are too much fun to kill off completely, but too unbalancing to the plot to leave in for all of it. To return to the Gandalf example, the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy could so easily have become "what Gandalf the Grey did on his holidays." His apparent death solved that by splitting him off from the other characters and giving them a chance to take centre stage.

As usual though, it’s the villains who have the most fun with the concept. Just when our intrepid heroes think they’ve killed them, back they come for more. It’s a cliché, but it’s a fun cliché. Probably the best of the bunch is Voldemort, with his "simple" strategy of "become a shadow of your former self, then live on the back of someone’s head, then spend half of the series trying to come fully back to life through increasingly weird plans." Let’s face it though, "fake your own death" is probably somewhere on the list of things for all really evil villains to do. Usually, it’s right after "build piranha tank" and "begin search for the one object that can ensure your defeat, but not so quickly that the hero can’t find it first."

Some authors use the back from the dead device more often than others. It’s something quite common among fantasy authors simply because it’s a genre that lets them take the concept quite literally. Neil Gaiman in particular seems to have a thing for characters who come back from the dead. To be more exact, he seems to be fond of characters who fake their own death by the simple expedient of actually dying. So we have Mr Wednesday/Odin from American Gods dying so that no one believes he’s conning everyone, the Marquis de Carabas from Neverwhere dying as a way of learning more about the villains’ plans and Anansi from Anansi Boys dying because… well, he felt like a bit of a rest.

Terry Pratchett has also written a few characters who come back from the dead unexpectedly. It comes as an absolute shock to Windle Poons in Reaper Man, and he spends much of the rest of the book as a zombie trying to find a way to die properly. Rincewind, on the other hand, never actually quite manages to die, but he does have a knack for ending up in situations where he’s presumed dead, notably after falling off the edge of the world (The Colour of Magic) and after getting trapped in the dungeon dimensions (Sourcery).

Of course, sometimes authors kill their characters specifically so they can’t be revived. By killing them at the end of a series, they hope to avoid another author coming along later and using the character. It’s a genuine risk. Somewhere in amongst the other million or so fantasy novels he seems to have written, for example, Robert Jordan found time to resurrect Conan the Barbarian, while rumour has it that a new James Bond novel is in the pipeline.

There’s no particular reason why this should necessarily produce bad results, but the risk of someone writing a truly awful book with an author’s favourite character after their death is definitely there. Given that risk, is it any wonder that some authors would rather give their favourite characters the opportunity of a memorable death than leave them alive at the end of a series?

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