When the Dead Guy Doesn't Stay Dead
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I love a good trope, but sometimes they're overused to the point where they lose their emotional impact.
Join me in this discussion on what happens when the dead guy doesn't stay dead.
Let me start off by saying that, personally, I love the resurrection trope. I love the moment when the bad guy realizes with horror that he has gravely miscalculated the power of his adversary.
At the time that C. S. Lewis published the Chronicles of Narnia, in which Aslan comes back from the dead due to a rule written in the Deep Magic before the dawn of time, the resurrection trope wasn't as overused as it is today. The White Witch thinks that she can kill the Lion and that he'll stay dead, but in reality, Aslan knows the laws of death better than she does, and knows that his willing sacrifice nullifies death's permanence. Thus, he can return to save Narnia from the Witch.
For those of you from a Christian background, this is a very Christ-like pattern. He had to rise from the dead, because the purity of His divinity and sinlessness demanded it. In God's law, death is the natural consequence of sin (Romans 6:23). Because Christ had no sin, He could only die because He took the sin of others willingly upon Himself (2 Corinthians 5:21). When He rose again, it was a declaration that He was sinless, that the sins were not His own, and therefore that death could not apply to Him (1 Corinthians 15:55-56). He reversed death.
Obviously there's more--I don't want to be trite with Christian doctrine--but for the purposes of this discussion, this suffices as an explanation of how Aslan's death and resurrection was intended to work.
That said, the resurrection trope as we often see it today is not based on the "laws of death," but rather a kind of "cheating death." Thus, a powerful story-telling technique has turned into a cheap trope.
Authors, both Christian and non-Christian, have used (and, in my opinion, vastly overused) the resurrection trope over the years. Sure, on the one hand, you see Sir Arthur Conan Doyle desperately trying to kill Sherlock Holmes off, but his readers forced him to revive Holmes for more adventures. This is a rare case in which the readers themselves forced resurrection upon the author. But in most cases, it is the author who forces resurrection upon the readers.
We can all name various series or franchises in which characters survive unlikely events and pop right back up. As a viewer or reader, we think, "But we didn't actually see the death happen. So maybe that person isn't actually dead." Or: "This person is too integral to the story. They're going to turn back up."
Readers are so cynical about the resurrection trope that when a character dies now--and stays dead--the emotional impact of the death is totally lost because the reader half-expects the character to come back to life. When the character stays dead, the emotion of the moment has already passed by, and the reader has lost the chance to feel the full weight and impact of that permanent event. The desensitization to death due to this almost video-game respawn expectation robs stories of their power.
We know that all stories run on conflict and, the higher the stakes, the greater the tension and the more satisfying the eventual resolution. When we don't believe death is actually part of the stakes, then the worst we imagine befalling our character is--what? Hatemail? Maybe some kind of injury? We lose the emotional investment in the story because the stakes aren't compelling enough. The very vehicle of the story--the threatened loss--gets ripped out.
As an author, this is saddening for me, because when I write a character death, it's a tragedy and it's almost always permanent. If I have to kill off a character, they should stay dead. It shouldn't be "Just joking!" Or "But did you see them die? See, I found a clever way to explain away their supposed death!" If I ever do resurrect a character, it's going to be after a lot of proving to myself that I've exhausted all other options, because I dislike contributing to this overworked trope. I want resurrection to stay special.
What about you? What's your favorite fictional resurrection moment, and what resurrection do you think falls into the category of "cheap"? I'd love to know your thoughts!
SFF Published in 2019
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10/21/2020 01:20:13 pm
I really enjoyed both Jesus's and Harry Potter's resurrections :) - interesting take on the story of Christ, never thought of it that way.
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