Recently, I watched a movie that you may have heard about, The Dark Knight Rises. I'm also watching the Star Wars movies with my son who's growing up to be a kind of like-his-father geek. For my gaming urges, I bought Darksiders 2, staring a protagonist called Death. Finally, I'm reading Orb, Sceptre, Throne by Ian C. Esslemont set in his shared Malazan universe. Those four don't have any real connection but they all brought to me some questioning about a particular topic, death.
Simply put, should the dead stay dead?
One of the possibilities created by Fantasy is... well... supernatural elements stretching the limits of imagination. Among these elements are the cheating of death, the portrayal of the underworld, ghosts and resurrection in many forms. Even necromancy is found often enough in Fantasy. When a thing becomes a concern that big and touches everyone, it's easy to think that it's also one of the principal worry for the characters and the authors behind them.
Moreover, death is a feature that can be used by the authors to create suspense and emotion. For suspense, finishing a book like George R.R. Martin did in A Dance with Dragons with the possible death of a main character (who actually survived quite a long time so far) is almost cruel but that's the kind of narrative choice that will make us even more eager to pick up the next book. That's something I like but for almost all cases of possible death I can think of, the character usually stayed alive. Consequently, one name from Abercrombie's series comes to mind and even before knowing that he will finally make an appearance in Red Country, I knew that he couldn't be dead.
As for emotion, I remember being quite astonished at the death of some protagonists in Mr. Martin's books again but even more so in Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson. I won't spoil but the death a certain character really got to me (and if you have read the book, you know whom I'm talking about). That was a nice way to use death to create or break emotional attachment. However, in Erikson's case, death is not really permanent or simple oblivion, it's a transfer to another warren (realm, dimension, universe to explain it simply). This creates interesting possibilities but sometimes it feels almost too easy to return to a dead character.
Even if many modern writers kill more important character than in the past (maybe it's only an impression I am under), like Abercrombie, Martin, Erikson, Deas, Cook, Bakker, Buchanan (another great example where death is emotionally striking), I still remember the feeling of reading about Gandalf's death. And then, I was glad he came back. At least, for some others (just one come to think of it), death was really the end.
I also remember a resurrection in Anthony Durham's Acacia trilogy that rather frustrated me. In that case, I had a hard time overcoming that dead's dead opinion. In the end, Durham used this 'come back to life' with great care and wrote a compelling storyline nicely woven into his tale. Also in his case, ghosts make an appearance. Maybe ghost is not the right term but you understand my meaning. Like Obiwan talking to Luke, a dead character can become a great asset for the development of a protagonist or to help him with his psyche (maybe I'm thinking a bit too much about Dexter and his father here but it's not actually a ghost, it's more of a hallucination) and mental conversations.
Actually, I think that death is sometimes more interesting than life happily ever after. In the hazardous worlds we usually read about where evil lurks, the paths the characters go on are quite treacherous and they often find themselves doing the greatest sacrifice, putting their life in danger, gambling it on the possible outcome. If no real death threatening circumstances are present, some stories completely fall apart. I'm not asking for that kind of situation in every book but it's still one of the principal aspects I'm looking for.
I think that one of the reasons why it's easy to kill many important characters in Epic Fantasy is simply because there are lot of them. When you have as many threads as series like Martin or Erikson, you can easily keep the intrigue going with a few less protagonists to write about. That kind of situation is not really possible with series like Scott Lynch's Gentlemen Bastard Sequence. Locke and Jean will still be around when book seven comes out. Then, even in this kind of book or books written with the first person perspective, actual death may not be a good idea but death threatening situation still ought to be quite present and hopefully it seems natural for many authors.
That being said, when the heroes struggles are over, if the character's dead, it can lead to even more fascinating turns of event for the world and the other characters. Even more interestingly, that sacrifice can become the first thing you remember and cherish when thinking back about a book and that particular character. There's one possibly coming soon that I hope will finish this way, The Wheel of Time. I would be glad for him is Rand finally got some peace in another world.
So I ask you again, should the dead stay dead? Do you prefer to see your beloved characters come back to life? Do you feel it's important that death lurk around the corner?