When heroes die

31 Jan , 2011,
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Fantastic Four #587 - Cover Art

They usually go out with a bang, jump into the gaping maw of a dragon, or get overrun by hordes of icky things from X dimension like the Human Torch in the latest issue of Fantastic Four.

I glanced through Issue #587 of course. What self respecting comic lover wouldn’t? But since I’ve never been a big fan of Marvel’s favorite super family, All I’m gonna do is applaud Jonathan Hickman, whose list of writing credits is something I can only dream of emulating, for doing it again.

He delivers a powerful finish.

Ultimately, this post isn’t just about The Fantastic Four (The Fantastic Three now), or poor Johnny, who bought it in a bad way.

Rather, it attempts to dissect another storytelling tool – the death of the hero, as opposed to that of the invincible hero who does no wrong, who cleaves through a thousand orcs a minute, takes down gods with a toothpick, and against all odds, refuses to die.

I can count at least two handfuls of writers who are guilty of this crime, of falling in love with their own creations, so much so that they can’t leave well alone and retire Mr. Uber Protagonist when it’s well past time to do so.

And R.A. Salvatore, the man behind Drizzt Do’Urden, is arguably the guiltiest of the lot.

Drizzt - You don't want your character to be this guy.

Drizzt, as everyone who has even remotely touched a fantasy book will know, is a collection of some of the worst tropes in popular literature (he probably invented some of them himself), disguised as a much maligned dark elf trying to make his way through the world.

He’s sulky, depressing, and two-dimensional, armed with two magic swords that would cost any other adventurer three arms and five legs (at least according to the Dungeons and Dragons rule books), and yet, when the literary gods of the Forgotten Realms (Oghma, for one) should have smote him for being such an affront to character development, he persists.

Like bad fanfiction.

My point is, a well written character knows when to exit the stage, and a decent author will know when this exit should be. Typically, it’s at the most crucial point in the story – the height of dramatic tension, where the hero’s quest is jeopardized by the appearance of the villain or by overwhelming odds.

Just think about it. You’ve got the macguffin, you’ve slain the big, fat, ugly dragon, and you’re about to get the payoff and the girl. And BAM! There’s a double cross, and the BBEG’s really the dude that hired you. Two million henchmen file in, train their guns at you. What do you do?

It is at this point that a heroic sacrifice will prove, ultimately, that good triumphs over evil, and make for a poignant, bittersweet victory that sits well with the audience.

Johnny, in #587, does this. He punts The Thing through the portal, and takes his place against the hordes of demons that have come calling. Sure, it’s likely he’ll be back in ten issues or twelve. Maybe something magical happened, his death is retconned (like so many other deaths in the Marvel universe) and he’ll be as good as new, but you can’t deny that when he goes down, he goes down in style.

Me, however, I prefer my heroes to stay dead.

Fantastic Four #587 - That's what I call a last stand.

In the real world, death is final. Everyone struggles with their mortality, even heroes. And that’s why it makes their deaths more resonant.

So even if you’ve worked a main character up from clueless rube to super sleuth, feel free to let him save the world, and go down with the sinking ship, burning tower, or exploding space station. That’s how your character becomes a legend, and not a bad trope. When you dare to let go.

Just, for the love of god, don’t pull a Drizzt, or rely on Deus Ex Machina, or alternate dimensions, and all that jazz.

Unless, of course, that hero you’ve created is a cash cow, and your publishers are adamant that you keep him alive so you can rake in the dough.

In which case it’s all perfectly legitimate.

But can you live with yourself if you do that?