Death in writing: cheating the reaper

I’ve shared several aspects of character death over the past few posts. Today, I’ll bring this series to and end by covering the situations where a character manages to escape death against all odds.

A lucky survivor

One of the situation is a moment when a battle goes terribly wrong and one side is completely decimated. As the winner leaves the scene, leaving death and destruction in their wake, it might happen that not everyone is dead yet. A character might only be knocked unconscious and, among possibly hundreds of combatants, no one will bother to check. They might be buried in a rubble where no one will see them but eventually find their way out. There are several possibilities but the main goal of such a scene usually remains the same: the survivor will then rejoin his/her people and warn them of the dangers they will (likely soon) face. Thus, the antagonist might lose the element of surprise and the heroes gain morale and determination.

An overconfident assasin

If there’s something all bad guys should know well enough already, it’s to:

  • make sure the victim is really dead
  • choose a reliable killer or (better) do it yourself

No matter how grievous the victim’s injuries appear to be, they are alive until they are dead (sounds obvious but some characters still forget that point). Leaving someone bleeding out might be a final act of cruelty (and a good demonstration of an antagonist’s evil character) but also leaves the chance of unlikely rescue.

There are other options as well. To name some: the victim might be a ‘double’ (and thus not the actual target) or the assasin might be outpayed by the target to bring a false news (sometimes including a false proof) of the deed being done – especially if the assassin is a mercenary who’ll gladly collect two payments for eventually doing nothing.

Unlikely rescue

Following from the first part of the abovementioned, the presence of a potential lifesaver does not guarantee success. It’s often down to the setting to determine the chances (and the potential success). Time is of the essence.

I’d say Sci-Fi offers the most possibilities for unlikely survival. A hi-tech exoskeleton might be able to mitigate an otherwise deadly fall (yes, throwing somone off a building or a low-flying helicopeter is a cliché but who am I to judge?). The existence of advanced prostetics/bionics also gives a chance to survive more than normally possible, if the rescue comes in time. Fantasy gives a chance if magical healing is possible (and done in time).

Through but not out

The last option is usually limited to fantasy. Stepping through death’s door might still not be the end for a character. Ressurrection is an option, though one that should be used carefully. If it’s easy for character to come back, death loses its meaning. Thus, such an act should have its limitations and cost. In general, I see two main scenarios for coming back this way:

Divine powers

Gods and demigods might have enough power to bring someone back – and are the only one where the ressurectee not suffering lasting damage makes actual sense. Still, there should be a reason for doing so. Most of the time, it’ll be a specific skill set of the character and their importance in the struggle. Such an act should also be consistent: if the (demi)gods seem detached form the world, suddenly caring for one character enough to bring him/her back won’t make much sense. If they are strongly attached, then acting sooner and preventing the hero’s demise with their powers would make more sense.

Necromancy

This option is usually limited to wielders of dark magic. The specific way might differ, as might the results. Still, taking this route should require a great deal of power, more so if the character is to return as its former self and not a shambling half-rotten undead. Full-scale ressurection by dark magic often involves a complex ritual and/or some kind of sacrifice (ranging from animals through body parts to sacrificing another victim).

Taking control of dead bodies and turning them into zombies (or similar undead creatures) usually requires less power but those creatures might require direct control and their use might be limited to disposable cannon fodder – which has its value as the bodies are already dead and the energy spent into animating them is still better payoff than losing living troops. This scenario can also hurt the morale of those besieged by the undead by having to spend precious time fighting those who had already fallen… again.

The other options

There are also some other options how to keep a character around after death such an ability to commune with the dead without bringing them back or becoming a ghost. Those, however, are limited in the impact – mostly to being mentors rather than someone able to take an active part in the plot.


And so, this seven-part series has reached its end. I hope you enjoyed it, maybe gained a new perspective on some aspects of character development or strengthened your current perspective. I’ll welcome your comments, both on this post and the series as whole.

Death in writing mini-series:
Intriduction (7.7.) – Impact on story (14.7.) – Emotions (21.7.) – Death sentence (28.7.) – Last rites (4.8.) – Sacrifice (11.8.) – Cheating death (18.8.)

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