Killing Characters Off – TV vs Novels

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I was watching the TV sequel to the 1996 dark comedy film Fargo last night. Mild spoilerage ahead, so watch out.

There were a lot of commendable aspects to the first episode (not least of which included the acting of the ever-lovable Martin Freeman), but amongst the most striking (no pun intended) high points were the deaths. There were a bunch of them, and most came quite unexpectedly. One especially flew in the face of where the plot appeared to have been going – even though it was only episode 1, this particular character was a thoroughly fleshed-out, and seemed to have a storyline that was going places.

I found that blog-post-worthy for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a reminder that too often works of fiction mark up an impending character’s death with too much red paint. In real life death often comes entirely unexpectedly, and it happens to the very best of people as well as the very worst. He had so much to live for? Well so did a lot of guys who randomly bit the dust. Just because a character seems to be going places, doesn’t make them immune to the scythe, and that grim real life reality has to be reflected in fiction.

Secondly, it got me wondering whether the fiction we read is expected to deal with character deaths differently compared to on-screen productions. Don’t get me wrong, there are simply reams of unexpected, brutal deaths in novels and short stories – heck, I’ve just finished reading the red wedding chapter from the Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones series. There is a sense, however, that screen writers like to capitalise on the distinctiveness of their own medium when a character gets axed (physically or metaphorically). Seeing something acted out in front of you comes with its own advantages and disadvantages, but it’s certainly easier to shock and surprise someone. It feels as though a character who gets slain after half a book’s-worth of development, and seemingly without furthering the plot a great deal, puts the author in the stocks, whereas the sudden death of a character midway through a television series sees it hailed as edgy and hard-hitting. I must conduct more meditative research into the matter, but until then, what do you think? Do television productions enjoy greater carte blanche when it comes to killing characters off? Are we page-writers more afraid to blow away pages of development? 

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Killing Characters Off – TV vs Novels

  1. Thumbs up to Fargo. I don’t typically like a lot of TV drama. Fargo and Mad Men are two programs I find to be well written as well as well acted and directed.

    To your point, yes, I see that often writers and whomever decides these things in TV land have a hard time letting go of characters. Writers, because they have likely invested so much. TV, maybe the same reason or maybe for ratings related or contractual/money reasons.

    You make good points.

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