Reality Bites Hard
"People love a happy ending. So every episode, I will explain once again that I don't like people. And then Mal will shoot someone. Someone we like. And their puppy."
I loved Firefly. I was about as unhappy as the next guy when it was binned. I also liked Serenity. And I particularly liked the fact that main stream leads died in the film. As Whedon might well have had in mind, this happens in real life and fiction is a stylised version of real life. Or, as Hitchcock pointed out, real life 'with the boring bits cut out'. Death is certainly not boring - it's as emotional an experience as exists in the human psyche. Yet, we don't want to follow a lead for a considerable period of time and then find them quit on us suddenly and without meaning. We've paid our money and given our time (and heart) and having a lead capitulate for little or no reason leaves us cold. A great story up to that point is forgotten and replaced by instant annoyance and a feeling of betrayal. Nevertheless, the death of a character can be the most cathartic experience a story can offer. I'm not talking about the Star Trek Ensign Ricky debacle here - instead, I'm looking at the death of someone we love and will miss.
Stripping a leading character from a reader might alienate them - there's that risk - but it also means that the story is underpinned by the tension of everyone knowing other leads are in jeopardy. It means the reader either consciously, or at least subconsciously, knows that things aren't necessarily going to turn out absolutely perfectly at the end of the book and that unknown quantity fuels the suspense. As Robert McKee points out in perhaps the most complete analysis of plot and story construction there is, Story, every story needs crisis. And in crisis we see the deep character of the protagonist. But with crisis comes risk and when the risk is to life and limb, the gap between expectation and result is what shocks and compels audiences:
"When a gap opens between expectation and result, it jolts the audience with surprise. The world has reacted in a way neither character nor audience had foreseen. This moment of shock instantly provokes curiosity..."
Robert McKee, Story: Style, Structure and Substance and the principles of Screenwriting
If that surprise is the loss of a leading character, there exists that risk of the audience feeling betrayed. We root for a character and naturally feel loss if they don't win. Yet, the potentially dangerous possibility that the audience might feel betrayed can be mitigated and, even, make to work for the story if set up properly.
Perhaps one of the most resounding 'deaths' is that of Luke Skywalker, farm boy, and the birth of the somewhat darker Jedi Knight between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The catalyst scene where the 'death' (psychological) occurs is When Darth Vader reveals the truth about his paternity to Luke. As McKee points out, this pays off multiple setups strung back through two films. Were it not for those set-ups we might have felt betrayed - where did this come from? How did it happen? Why? But, instead, we are catapulted back to the scenes in which Ben Kenobi and Yoda are greatly troubled over Luke’s command of the Force, fearing, we presumed at the time, for the young man’s safety. We realise they were in fact terrified that in fact Vader, his father, might tempt him to the Dark Side. And the scene, and the simple word 'father' resounds with resonance instead.
Happy endings are great for certain genres but real life is rarely replete with happy endings and, sometimes, readers love the sense that things really are not going to turn out exactly as they expect (or even hope). In fact, McKee really does say it best when he defines a story:
"To tell story is to make a promise: If you give me your concentration, I’ll give you surprise followed by the pleasure of discovering life, its pains and joys, at levels and in directions you have never imagined."
So, sometimes, Mal has to shoot someone, and their dog, because audiences need to be surprised. And they need to be horrified. And to be reminded that real life bites hard and that is really what thrills us. That the person we're rooting for might not actually win, or, if they do, it won't be a resounding success but maybe just enough to take home. Or it might lead onto something new and unexpected.