Much has been written about killing darlings. I am referring to screenwriters' practice of killing off beloved characters. While it is often handled with depth and sensitivity, more recently it has been handled in a sudden, almost cartoon-like fashion. The recent demise of Will on The Good Wife and last season's Matthew on Downton Abbey are prime examples. In Matthew's case, the man had it all: a wonderful wife, a new baby and a grand estate. Then right out of an Acme cartoon, he gets into a car accident and dies. It was as though a piano suddenly dropped on his head.
Didn't see that coming.
In both cases, the characters of Matthew and Will got the shaft because the actors playing these roles decided to leave their series. Sure, the writers could have made the characters simply float away like the popular character Doug Ross did many years ago on ER. Or the characters could have contracted a long, drawn-out illness. But those approaches are anti-climatic. And sure, the actors could have been replaced by other actors playing the same character. But that's often weird. So a piano on the head makes a lot of sense when actors depart. The storytellers might as well squeeze some emotion out of it.
Killing a well-liked character isn't new, of course. Disney killed off Bambi's mom, Nemo's mom, and Tarzan's mom to name a few. What does Disney have against moms? Nothing, except that it's a great storytelling device because it instantly creates sympathy for the central character. So killing a parent, a child, a spouse, a friend or a romantic interest is often beneficial in engaging audiences. Would we remember Romeo and Juliet if they didn't die? Doubtful. Though Shakespeare screwed himself out of a potential sequel.
Another great device is to kill off the central character's mentor in order to allow the underling to grow and reach maturity. Harry Potter's mentors had to die so that he could become the only remaining hope, just as Obi-Wan in Star Wars needed to die so that Luke Skywalker could grow into the champion. This also creates great viewer tension because audiences will think, "Gee... if George Lucas is crazy enough to kill off a great character like Obi-Wan, then no one is really safe." That's a great tactic for generating viewer angst. It prompts them to hope and pray that their beloved remaining characters will survive.
So if done prudently, killing off an endearing character is greatly beneficial in storytelling. But getting it right is challenging because different audience segments across gender and ages often identify with different characters. So every time you boil, drown, fry or fricassee one of them, you run the risk of losing the audience segment that strongly identified with that character.
I strongly considered dropping Game of Thrones when Ned Stark died at the end of season one. Why? Because he was the patriarch of the family, and so am I. I saw myself behaving as he would. When he got sliced and diced, so too was a lot of my interest. I came begrudgingly back to the series at my daughter Megan's insistence and have now adopted Ned's bastard son, Jon Snow, as my favorite character. He has qualities I admire. Thank goodness I never cared much for Robb Stark, Ned's oldest son, who became a pin cushion in the Red Wedding episode. Whew! I almost lost another identification figure.
Here's my point. Though killing off a darling is a great storytelling device, storytellers need to think very carefully about the various audience segments, the characters that each identifies with, and the migration path that takes audiences from the dead darling to one that is still alive. This is an important strategic decision. If done well, it builds an emotional connection between audiences and characters. If done poorly, it becomes the proverbial bridge too far.
Or more specifically, if Jon Snow on Game of Thrones gets whacked, I'm shutting down the game.