Death in Storytelling

I, like many people, love stories. I read books, watch films and television shows, play games, listen to music – all sorts. There are stories everywhere. Growing up, they obviously had a big effect because now I’m an aspiring writer.

One thing I’ve never really considered until recently was death in the stories we read, watch, play, listen etc. It’s always there, sometimes in a small way and others a lot more significantly – even when I was younger. I never had a reason to question it before but now I’m beginning to wonder; are we numb to death in our stories?

Oh, there will be some spoilers coming up but nothing too recent.

Death isn’t unusual

I spent some time reliving a few childhood memories. Purely academic of course, but I found that death is all around us. Despite this, no one raises an eye. Remember, I’m particularly fond of the sci-fi and fantasy genres but death isn’t limited to these subjects. Maybe I expect it more in adult stories than I do children or young adult fiction but nevertheless, it’s there.

Should this be allowed?

Well, it already is, although there are rules to follow, it seems. In adult fiction, there are fewer to follow – and less consequences if the rules are broken. For younger audiences, there are two main rules I’ve identified. Not everything follows this and there probably more but these are two I’ve noticed the most.

Firstly, the death has to mean something. It can’t be an afterthought; it is used to teach a character something – even if it takes a while to do so. It acts as motivation, a turning point, a way to break and rebuild. Ultimately, this is a popular or well-loved character; a mentor, guardian or parent, for example, but not limited to them. It allows characters to reach their ‘coming of age’ stage and then go on to surpass them.

Alternatively, deaths are used to indicate scale. They are minor characters; soldiers in a war, brief acquaintances, villains or monsters that heroes must defeat to complete a quest. They can be likened to an obstacle, wall or challenge that has to be overcome. As we never invest in them, or are made to think of them as evil, their deaths are seen as insignificant. It’s only looking back that I realised just how many there have been.

Beloved franchises

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

This happens a lot, so I’m going to list some examples. Again, if you haven’t read/seen/played any of these, spoilers are coming. However, I’ve chosen older titles so don’t blame me.

Harry Potter. I grew up with these books. My feelings are mixed but that’s another story. Harry’s parents are dead before the books begin but throughout the series, key characters die. Sirius, Dumbledore, Snape and Lupin are core characters to Harry and help develop his character. Voldemort is the villain to overcome but wizards, witches, Death Eaters and muggles all die throughout the later books. Pretty grim, really.

Even the Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t escaped. Avengers Assemble killed off a very important character, popular with other characters and audiences alike. This was

Chaos Walking Trilogy

Chaos Walking Trilogy

rectified later, to mixed reactions from what I gathered, but it was a shocking moment. Again, it followed the first rule. Plenty of deaths, both innocent, ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys.’

Star Wars. Almost every film has an example of this. A New Hope saw Obi Wan die, while in the most recent film, The Force Awakens, Han Solo bites the bucket. The first example is a turning point for Luke Skywalker while Han’s demise will have repercussions we’re yet to fully experience. With war being a common theme, you can see death in all seven films.

I could list some hugely shocking moments here, and I may well do in the future but not tonight. I’d like to point you to Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking Trilogy as a great example, though. Gamers will probably know the Final Fantasy VII example, which is still a powerful moment almost two decades later. The list is endless. Maybe I will sort something later.

And then there’s A Song of Ice and Fire

ASOIAF - A Game of Thrones

ASOIAF – A Game of Thrones

I left this until the end because it’s one of the most recent, mainstream and popular series around. Unfortunately, that applies more to the TV show Game of Thrones rather than the books. While I could happily and easily dive into THAT debate, we’ll leave it to one side for now.

Death is probably the only thing you can expect in both the show and the books. No one seems to be safe, from minor characters to major, popular to unpopular. George R. R Martin has done well in making readers invest in the characters, even the ones you don’t like, before pulling the rug from under you and killing them.

The series hasn’t finished so we don’t know how it will end but it’s one of the most popular franchises at the moment where death is so prevalent. The deaths are also epic in a lot of cases, which makes them stand out. When I say epic, I mean brutal. Shock tactics galore.

Does this numb us further? That’s something to think on but some people don’t mind it, while others hate it and then the third group love it. It’s always going to divide opinion but that’s just one of the great things about stories.

Is this the end of the Star Wars Expanded Universe?

In March last year, I wrote a blog about the Star Wars Expanded Universe and whether Disney should keep it or not. By now, we know that everything we’ve been used to is no longer canon and the first trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been released. I want to touch upon my favourite moments of the EU and the ones I’m happy to see go. If you want to catch up on what I said last year, visit this post first.

Star Wars EU 1

Shelf one of my Star Wars Expanded Universe collection

First things first, the trailer

Now, I don’t think JJ Abrams did too badly with the Star Trek films from the last few years. People have their issues with both of them but I quite enjoy them – they’re nothing on the originals but they’re not trying to be. Given that approach, and how well Disney has done with Marvel, I’m fairly hopeful that the next Star Wars film will be okay, at the very least.

They can’t be worse than the prequels (hopefully) and the trailer looks dark and edgy. The story will always be a conflicting point but we have very little information to go on right now. Eleven months to go but I’m hoping the next trailer will keep the momentum going.

My favourite Expanded Universe moments

Star Wars EU 2

Shelf two of my Star Wars Expanded Universe collection

I could go on about a lot of favourite moments but I’m going to choose some of my favourites. If you haven’t read a lot or are up to date, then be warned there are spoilers but since it’s not canon, does that matter to you now? Either way, here they are:

Grand Admiral Thrawn from Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy of books was probably one of the best villains outside of the original trilogy. The story made sense given the background of the Empire and their xenophobic attitudes – although this did slowly change over the years – but you really felt that Thrawn could deliver the Empire some long-term success and my only regret is that he didn’t last longer.

The Yuuzahn Vong from the New Jedi Order series of books aren’t always popular. It was a long series, seventeen books or so, but it was the kind of shakeup the Expanded Universe needed. Their fanaticism and resistance to the Force asked the heroes and readers some big questions and the characters become a lot more real in the process. Finally, this is the point where we actually see some beloved characters die and this was a shock from the first book.

The X-Wing series of books are some of my favourites in the whole of the Expanded Universe, following the adventures of Rogue and Wraith Squadrons. They are much funnier than most of the other novels and focus on a different set of characters, although our heroes do show up from time to time. Remember the Ewok pilot fiasco? No? you need to read the ninth book then. Genius – Yub yub!

Boba Fett! What’s not to love about this guy? From being swallowed by the Sarlacc to becoming a living legend, the guy has seen more of the galaxy than anyone else and still comes out on top. He might be getting on a bit but that doesn’t stop him from being a ruthless killer, fearless warrior and commanding leader. He even gave one Jedi a helping hand to stop a tyrant – so he does have a soft side. Hopefully, he’ll be just as legendary in the future.

What am I happy to see go?

Star Wars EU 3

Shelf three of my Star Wars Expanded Universe collection

There are still more spoilers here:

While the New Jedi Order did something valuable and important for the Expanded Universe, the first book killed Chewbacca! I get why they did it – and to be fair, it’s a pretty epic way to go (death by moon!) – but I’m still happy that he’s back. It tied up his story very well but who isn’t going to be happy at seeing that walking carpet back again? Exactly. Mixed feelings on this one.

Mara Jade was a very interesting character and she has developed the most throughout all characters in the Expanded Universe. From wanting to kill Luke Skywalker to eventually working with him, marrying him and having a kid with him, she’s been on quite a ride. Whether we’ll ever see Mara Jade again is anyone’s guess but at least now she isn’t dead – although she doesn’t really exist right now either.

Han and Leia’s kids really had it rough. One died during the Yuuzahn Vong war, one fell to darkness and redeemed herself and then the other one became a full on Sith Lord. Jacen Solo’s descent to darkness almost mirrored his grandfather;s, which was probably the point. It was an interesting way to come full circle again, especially as he was the one most people guessed would become the ‘next Luke.’ It might have been tragic if not predictable – especially for the person who had to stop him. One guess there.

Where next?

So, what’s next? Will there be more books to come? Are they going to continue this story or follow from the new films? What about new games and such? There are a lot of questions without answers right now and I doubt we’ll get any serious answers until at least after the film is released in December. Any thoughts or ideas, please let me know. Got any favourite or least liked parts of the EU? Share them with us.