How to *Almost* Kill Your Characters

WARNING: This post contains major spoilers for these movies: The Avengers, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and Pacific Rim. It also contains one for the book, The Way of Kings.

Second paragraph of warning. If you don’t want the endings of those movies and something from the middle of the book spoiled, stop reading.

So if you’re to here, I’m assuming you’ve seen all of those, or you don’t mind me spoiling them for you. Kudos to you. Let me jump right in with what I’m talking about. Almost killing your characters. By this I mean taking them to the point of death, and bringing them back. Specifically, I’m talking about the scene where the main character does something and when we see them again, it’s a secondary character holding their body, thinking they’re dead. And then their eyes open, and everything is fine.

In The Avengers, we get this scene when Tony Stark falls back through the trans-dimensional-wormhole-thingy. Oh, the ending up to that point is spectacularly awesome, and I loved it. But there, they pretend he’s dead for a moment, and then the Hulk roars at him, and boom, happy, alive, and making his quips. The moment where they feared he was dead felt empty, cheated, to me.

In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, we get this scene where Thorin Oakenshield is dropped off by the eagles. Again, his eyes are closed for a moment (Plus the entire eagle’s flight before that), and we are supposed to be afraid that he’s dead, for a moment. And then he opens his eyes. And makes a great speech, but seriously. A moment later he’s standing up and acting like nothing was even wrong with him. I feel cheated by that moment when his eyes are closed.

And at the end of Pacific Rim, after our hero (I’ve forgotten his name. Shame on me.) blows up his big mecha-robot thing (Yes, I know it’s a Jäger.) in the alien dimension and then jettisons out (This felt a lot like Stark falling back through after delivering the nuke.), the only female character in the entire movie with a line, as far as I can remember (Gender balance ruling: WAY off), swims off her pod through the ocean (Why was there green stuff coming from hers?) and opens his up. Then we get the entire scene where they can’t find a pulse and there’s no life signs, his eyes are closed, etc… And the boom, open. A moment later, we pan out to them romantically sitting together on top of the pod, both seeming fine. Again, I felt utterly cheated by this scene.

And then there’s a scene in the middle of The Way of Kings. I’ll preface this by saying that this is my favorite book of all time. I’m in the middle of re-reading it right now. I saw Pacific Rim on Saturday, and read this scene yesterday (Sunday), which is what prompted this post. Anyway, it’s the scene where Kaladin is hanging from the barracks after the highstorm. There’s a description of how bloody and cut up he is, and nobody could survive that. And then his eyes snap open. BAM. It was a very powerful scene for me, and I loved it. It’s one of my favorites in the book, after some of the ending battle scenes, and the one where Dalinar holds back the Chasmfiend claw near the beginning. (I would pay to see a movie of this just for that scene right there.)

So why did the first three not work, while the last one was so good it hit me physically?

Let me pause for a moment and note that I enjoyed all of the movies listed. The Avengers and The Hobbit, particularly, are some of my favorite movies, overall. It’s just the one scene that I’m picking on here.

I think it has to do with a few things that surround the scenes. First is placement. In all of the films, the almost-death scene is at the end. After the big battle has been won, everything is over. Now we just wait to see if they hero has survived, and then yes, they did, so there’s no reason to have them really hurt or anything. Just unconscious for a moment and then they’re fine. In The Way of Kings, the scene is almost directly in the middle of the book. We haven’t won yet (That happens in book 10, I think?) so we’re expecting the character to go on. Kal hasn’t even just beaten some big bad guy. I think that these kinds of scenes are better earlier, when there’s still action to come, instead of it all being over.

But perhaps more importantly, it’s about the set-up. In each of the movies, it’s “We beat him.” (Well, not Azog. But that’s because we have to have a bad guy for later, right?) and the point of the scenes are to beat the bad guys. The point of Kaladin’s scene is that he survived the highstorm. His goal was to survive. And I think it was incredibly well set up by the speech he gave a few scenes back, when he’s strung up before the storm, about how he will open his eyes when it’s over. His goal is to survive. It’s not to beat up a bad guy, so whether he survives or not, it’s not an afterthought, it’s the entire point of the scene.

There’s also a magical explanation of why he survived, when nobody else was supposed to be able to. Oh, we don’t get into it for a little while, but it’s still there, and I think that it helped a lot. I’m tired of people surviving things that should have killed them just because they survived. If they have a cool magical reason, to survive, it’s cool (I can be redundant when I’m being redundant.).

There’s also the fact that Kaladin isn’t immediately miraculously well and happy. Gosh no. He’s just been shredded and torn to pieces by a super-mega-uber-hurricane. He’s going to be beat up. His eyes open, and then he passes out again, and we get a chapter where he has to heal up and rest before he can get back to any semblance of normalcy. This made the scene feel much more real to me, made it seem like he actually was in danger from the storm, and he did get hurt.

So, at least as far as I can figure out, that’s why only one of those scenes worked for me. If you have differing opinions, please comment. I may certainly be wrong. And if I’m wrong, I want to know. I honestly wrote this post to explore my own opinions and feelings of disappointment at the scene in Pacific Rim and the sudden reversal I felt in a similar scene the next day in The Way of Kings. I’m a writer, and I’ll want to write scenes like this at some point. And I want them to work, to be as powerful as the scene in The Way of Kings, so I’ve tried to figure out why it works for me, so that maybe I can duplicate that, and make it work for my readers. If you think I’ve missed something, please let me know. I’m just trying to be a better writer :).

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