In Fatal Attraction, could we have accepted Dan’s dispatching of Alex before she boiled the bunny?
In the Dirty Harry movies, could we have enjoyed the now-famous quotes “You have to ask yourself, do I feel lucky? Well do you? … Punk” and “Make my day” quite as much if we hadn’t wanted to kill the Antagonist just as much as Harry did?
Was I the only one who cheered out loud, alone in my living room, while watching that so-satisfying Resolution in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?
For the most part, we Earthlings are deeply moral so can rarely condone the killing of anyone, even fictional characters. We are forgiving, loving, understanding. I would venture to say that most of us who are readers possess an even higher degree of compassion — mostly because we read. So how can we possibly accept, enjoy, cheer when a character is killed off?
At the heart of us, we can’t.
Unless the Antagonist (a.k.a., the Adversary) deserves it: is killable.
But … We must not make the Antagonist entirely what some call “evil”. Even serial killers have a background that helped condition them and this elicits from us a certain amount of sympathy. No one-dimensional characters, please. Even cartoon characters are in two dimensions.
Dracula is the epitome of “evil” but the poor guy is looking for a long-lost love. Ah, yes. We can easily relate to that, can’t we? I always feel a bit sad when Frankenstein’s Creature is killed off, too.
However, Dracula is a control freak. He wants his “long-lost love” to be the next thing to a slave — and for ever and ever — while the two of them travel the world biting people’s necks and turning them, essentially, into clones of themselves: soulless wanderers of the night taking up valuable cemetery space during the day.
Frankenstein’s Creature is nowhere near “evil”. He’s the sad result of a scientist’s ambitions. We pity The Creature. We don’t like seeing him die at the hands of the villagers but tell ourselves “Well, it’s best, isn’t it? Poor thing.”
We must have our Antagonist do something absolutely despicable purely for self-centred reasons and he must have no regrets for doing it. He may regret getting caught. Or not. He may regret having killed the little girl. But make him regret having killed her so quickly, not for killing her in the first place.
We must not have the Killable Antagonist do anything kind, as this is what we do to make a bad guy loveable (Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder). It’s not a good idea to kill off anyone loveable — unless by a character who is killable. [Or to ratchet up sympathy for a character who loses someone they love, but this is for another post.]
Unless the Killable Antagonist’s motivation is purely selfish. “Oh, hello little girl. You’re lost, are you? Come with me. I’ll help you find Mommy …”
Next post: Motivation — Make ’em Wanna
Sherrill Wark is the author of Really Stupid Writing Mistakes: How to Avoid Them: http://www.amazon.com/Really-Stupid-Writing-Mistakes-Avoid/dp/1479308226
… and Death in l’Acadie: a Kesk8a story (fiction): http://www.amazon.com/Death-lAcadie-Kesk8a-Sherrill-Wark/dp/1511501154/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8