“Nothing is certain except death and taxes.” – Ben Franklin
SADLY, IN fiction, as in life, death often enters the picture when you least expect and certainly don’t desire. As a reader, you can occasionally see the bloody writing on the wall; your cleverness catches the clues, the hints and the foreshadowing, warning you ahead of time that something won’t end well. Yet you push forward, hoping, right up until the last minute, that this unforgivable act won’t occur. You hold on to the belief that the author, unlike Lachesis of the Moirae, with her impassiveness and indiscriminate manner, WILL NOT cut the life cord of a beloved character. No one the author has to know will be a fan favourite is written to die, right? Especially not a central protagonist, the hero, a character so complex, endearing, and engaging they’ve quickly become your darling! To create a pivotal story component, your entire and perhaps lasting enjoyment of the work hinges on, yet unknown to you, allotted to perish from the conception of the narrative—! Can the writer be that cruel?
Or is it literary happenstance, an idea that “just came to them?” An unplotted, organically formed dark scenario steers the story in an unexpected yet emotionally jarring direction, sure to create a lasting impact. What is the author’s motivation, then? Is it just to cause shock and heartache, a capricious move to intentionally create pathos, to push their readers into a fellowship of shared pain and sadness? Is it all about despair and rage leaving lasting scars while good results, like “They lived happily ever after,” too quickly fade from memory?
At least when you see the train lights in the distance hurtling toward you, you’re prepared and given the power of choice to get off the tracks in time to avoid unpleasantness, to put it mildly. If you continue reading, you’ll have to deal with your inevitable frustration, outrage, and sadness. Close the book, and you’ll stay in a moment of safety in the novel when nothing has yet occurred that irrevocably changes your enjoyment of the story. It was author Brad Boney, at the beginning of his book, The Eskimo Slugger, the third in the Austin Trilogy, who introduced me to the Orsen Welles quote: “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” This is an honest warning from Boney regarding his novel’s direction. And if you’ve read his two previous books in the series, it makes complete sense, though it becomes less a warning and more a lesson. And this adage works for both the writer and the reader. If you want a guaranteed happy ever after and don’t want to feel distressed, you better end the story where you and your favourite character are in a good place before the author does you dirty!
Okay, but what about those other times when you have no warning! That complete, shocking, gut-wrenching surprise outrages you, destroys you, and sends you into a tail-spin of anguish and lamentation, wondering, “Was it all worth it in the end now that I’m miffed and unhappy?” Did you honestly get enjoyment out of the reading? Some readers are masochists—in the best way, of course! (I do write revenge thrillers.) Still, others, like me, often silently seethe. How could the author do this to you—to that wonderful character who didn’t deserve it?! Unfair! Nooooooo! I’ve talked before about the literary element of “Killing Your Darlings” within my own work. And yes, I’ve participated in both pre-plotted deaths and organically created ones sprung to life as I wrote the story. I’m guilty of what I’m going on about. There is neither a wrong nor a correct method of storytelling; it’s about artistic freedom, expression, and emotional impact. Fairness is rarely an absolute; I’ve been emotionally chewed up and spit out by a character’s death in thrillers, mysteries, and even romances minted “Cosy.” Nowhere is 100% safe!
There’ve been many fictional characters from various types of media whose death has negatively affected me. Superman’s death in DC Comics Superman #75, published on November 18, 1992, is heart-wrenching. That final page of artwork with Lois Lane, distraught and shattered, wailing as she cradles his corpse is a striking image I’ll never get out of my head; still, it doesn’t have the same impact today to make me quiver with distress when I think about it.
Other memorable fictional deaths swim in my head to varying degrees of sadness and unrest: Claudia in Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire, Beth March in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and Gino’s innocent baby (who never got a chance!) in E.M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread. Even the deaths in Brad Boney’s Austin Trilogy, queer-centric novels so wonderful and heartbreaking that despite how they broke me emotionally, it all made sense to the series’ metaphysical connective storyline. The deaths had meaning and even a degree of justice. Go read this fantastic queer series to fully understand my enigmatic commentary.
These deaths mentioned above have a high degree of impactful tragedy. Still, there’ve only been a few cases where a character’s death has negatively pervaded my memory and stayed with me for years, like a bad penny I can’t get rid of. This is a fictional encounter where I’ve experienced such an adverse reaction that I instantly get angry upon thinking about it. I feel that immediate gut punch and acquire an immediate distaste in my mouth; my feeling toward this death is that visceral. Good on the writer for providing unforgettable work, but also FU for killing my favourite character!
There’s one fictional character from a comic book series that I’m prepared to admit I hate, hate, HATE was killed off. Upon reading their death scene, one I didn’t even see coming, it so affronted me that I spent an hour ranting to my husband about it. And I’ll still bitch about it to this day.
Fair warning—I’ll probably get heated.
The character whose death I’m talking about is Marko from Brian K. Vaughan’s comic series Saga, published by Image Comics. Marko is the male lead of the series, a handsome alien pacifist (though that doesn’t always work out so well) with cool-looking horns and ears. He’s in a “Romeo and Juliet” relationship with Alana, from a world at war with Marko’s own, with whom he eventually has a child. With his complex personality, Marko was my favourite character right out of the gate. He had a compelling internal struggle with imperfection, fear, and love. I also adored his physical look, beautifully rendered by artist Fiona Staples. All this, plus his desire to make things better and safer for his family, captivates me; he’s so darn charming. Marko would love to change the galactic narrative and stop the fighting between worlds because he’s inherently good—flawed, with regrets and having made mistakes, sure, but he’s genuine. Alana would never have fallen for him and stayed if he wasn’t. Knowing it’s a monumental task, in all probability beyond his abilities, Marko stays focused on the safety of his family and friends.
There are many fascinating characters in Vaughan’s series, but none resonate with me like Marko. I journeyed alongside him through 9 volumes of the graphic novel form of Saga, immensely enjoying his experiences, hoping he and his family would one day get the ‘Happy Ever After” they deserved, even if it meant the series ending or transitioning its focus to other characters. They deserved it. Marko deserved it! It never once crossed my mind that Marko could die. Not once. Like Daryl Dixon in The Waking Dead, some main protagonists are off the table, right? They face near-insurmountable hardships but remain perpetually unkillable. Well, apparently not.
At the end of issue #54, the final part of the 9th graphic novel, Marko is fatally stabbed through the chest by The Will, a bounty hunter. The Will is a character who doesn’t deserve the right to take the life of someone like Marko. The act of killing my horned hero is unforgivable in itself, but to have such a broken, misdirected character as The Will execute the deed is an affront to readers like myself who emotionally engaged with Marko the entire run of the series. Marko is such a rich, multi-layered character with so much (more) to offer the storyline, and to have all that just end feels so wrong. His death is meaningless; it does nothing of substance to further the storyline and comes across like a last-minute decision, a plot twist that came out of nowhere to shock, and I feel cheated. The unity that was Marko, Alana and their child, Hazel, interested me the most about the series. Wake me if he’s ever resurrected.
I can’t get behind character deaths with no real poignancy; it always comes across as a tad gimmicky. It might seem dramatic, perhaps even hyperbolic, to say that I feel cheated out of the happiness reading Saga used to give me, never mind the investment of time and emotion because not only can’t I accept Marko’s end, but it’s tainted what came before knowing where all the blood, sweat, and tears eventually lead to. It’s just how I feel. I want to continue with the series with Marko’s involvement. Vaughn doesn’t owe me happiness as a reader; conversely, I don’t owe him further investment of my time. This is a universal truth about the relationship between the author and the audience. It’s not always pretty, and it sure as heck’s not always fair.
So, as a reader, always go into a book or story in whatever form with the understanding that you never control the narrative, only how you respond to it. And if you don’t like a plotline/twist or feel a personal disconnect and/or frustration with the direction an author is taking, that’s okay. Like all art, fiction is meant to produce an emotional reaction, and it won’t always be a feeling of joy and contentment. Sometimes it’s, as I said, a “gut punch!” Hey, not all my characters get a “Happy Ever After.” Be warned.
#BRINGBACKMARKO (They did it with Superman!)