Just to make things interesting, I’ve decided to number the points according to the chorus of a catchy song.
Ever since people have been able to create works of fiction, they have sought to relate it to the external world in some way. Perhaps the story was actually about the real world, perhaps it was only loosely related, pausing to grab some basic physics or some geography before careening off into fantasy or metaphor. Usually the author can’t resist but to include Life, in some form or another, and all the things associated with it. One obvious such thing is Death: whether it’s to make some sort of philosophical point, move the plot along, or increase the reader’s personal involvement because they identify with the character(s).
The problem is that Death is often used so shabbily by the creators of fiction. It happens for reasons of bad writing: Death occurs in ridiculous or clichéd ways, or it seems to only affect the secondary supporting cast, if indeed anyone dies at all. Now I can’t make you a better writer with regards to the first part, but I can tell you (with math!) how to go about fixing the second.
The idea is to use something called “game theory”, which was invented by Russell Crowe during the filming of A Beautiful Mind, which was a movie about how the government will implant false memories in the minds of academics in order to push them towards schizophrenia. Writing has some similarities to games of deception, because the writer has to obscure how the plot is going to evolve so that it’s interesting enough to read. As a model, we imagine a game kind of like poker, with two players, A and B, and three ranks of cards labeled 1, 2, and 3 (with 3 beating 2 and 2 beating 1). The game works with the following rules: A can bet or check (not bet anything) and B can either call or fold. In this example, suppose that B always gets card 2, and A gets either 1 or 3 with equal probability.
So the naive strategy for A would be to always bet when he’s got a 3 and to check with a 1, because he doesn’t lose anything due to lousy cards and stands to gain if B calls him when he’s got a 3. That strategy would be ineffective, however, because B would fold when A bets and thereby ensure that A could never achieve a profit.
A better strategy for A would be to bet with 1 a certain amount of the time, but always bet when A has a 3. This way B would be tricked into both folding his 2 to A’s 1 (a bluff) and calling A’s 3 with his 2 (trapped).
I’m at a place called vertigo
What does this have to do with fiction? Well, it should be pretty obvious: if you never inflict meaningful suffering/consequences/random calamities on your characters sufficiently frequently, it will mean nothing when they are in harms way. Similarly, if they never fail to achieve the objectives or goals that the story sets up (beat the bad guy, get the girl, etc.), it will mean nothing when then they do in fact succeed. You should have bad things happening more or less inversely proportional to how bad they are (within reason). Ominous threats and undertones of danger are only effective if, sometimes, they’re followed through on. This is what makes Tom Clancy a shitty writer and Ian Fleming a great one, even if they’re dealing with similar material. Once you take away personal involvement with the characters, you’re left with your prose or the engaging nature of your plot to keep people interested, which is a dicey gambit indeed.
So please, stop killing off the guy with the red shirt, make the stakes real. Not just because some random guy on the Internet suggests it, but because mathematics demands it. After all, you can argue with me, but you can’t argue with Russell Crowe
—- Footnotes —-
1. I watched an episode of Criminal Minds a couple weeks back where a guy who’d been staging auto accidents to make his murders look less suspicious was chased onto a highway and subsequently dispatched by a truck. It practically made its own post-mortem one liner and thereby ruined any dramatic release that might’ve been possible if he was apprehended or at least eliminated in a less obvious manner.
2. Probably not a good thing that we are as a collective audience people who find the concept of a major character (and not even the main character) dying in the course of their story to be distasteful and alien.
3. Those interested should rent A Beautiful Mind‘s sequels, Men In Black and Men in Black II for further development of that idea.
4. Radically simplified for people who don’t give a shit about math.
5. He’ll throw a phone.