We’ve all heard the advice to kill your babies. And, it’s exactly what writers should do. This has not been the case, especially in the world of fantasy. The usual fantasy has an unlikely hero that will always pull through in the end (this is also seen in superhero movies/comics, and while they are slightly different, the same notion can be applied to them). Things are beginning to change (and this is a good thing!). The best example of this sweeping change comes from the leader of the new movement dedicated to killing off their babies, George R.R. Martin. *NOTE* SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE TV SHOW AND BOOOKS. Once again, SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!!!!
Not too long ago, you may have noticed a slew of reaction videos on youtube thanks to the Red Wedding. While I won’t go into great detail about it, I am going to talk about why an event that kills of numerous loved characters is the best thing to happen to the fantasy genre. Confused? Then keeping reading.
As I mentioned above, the usual fantasy trope has the main hero, the guy you cheer for, the one who, in the end, will find a way to win. You can see this from Frodo in the Lord of the Rings to something more modern like the Terry Brook’s Shannara books (modern and old at the same time considering how many there are) to someone like Terry Goodkind (a run of Terry’s) and his long running Sword of Truth series. All of these examples have the main hero, who of course gets in dangerous situations, but will always make it in the end (you are probably rattling off exceptions to this rule here, but do remember, an exception cannot make a rule). Why is this bad though? People buy the books, they like them, so what’s the harm?
There isn’t harm if you like them (and a lot of people do). I’m not coming here to say any of these books are bad, in fact, they are pretty good. With that being said, as more and more and more of these kind of books are published things tend to grow dull. As you are reading the book, you know the character will make it in the end and the only thing you are reading for is to see HOW they make it in the end (it can be argued that this is a main reason we read). That can be exciting, but imagine a book where any character, even main POV characters, can die at any second. WOAH! Now you REALLY have to pay attention to what is happening. Every page could be your favorite character’s last. Not only does this make the book more exciting, but it also makes it more real.
Let’s hop to that Red Wedding scenario and we can see why killing off some beloved characters makes the book more real and intense. At the Red Wedding (like I said SPOILERS), Robb Stark, one of the most popular characters in the book after his father was killed, is brutally murdered along with his mother and troops at what is supposed to be a celebration (there is a lot that goes into this, but writing out the details would take some time). No one, except maybe a handful, expected that to happen. After all, Robb was one of their favorite characters. He was supposed to make everything right again. In the normal fantasy trope, he WOULD make everything right again. But, is that closer to reality? Does it give us suspense? No to both. In the real world, people who are loved make mistakes and die. ANYONE can die at ANY time. Most fantasy strips this from their books and only gives the illusion that anyone can die at any time.
Adding this gritty realness to fantasy books opens up the genre. For the good old fashioned books, now the reader can’t be sure what will happen. And for the books like Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, there will still be the roller coaster ride we have come to expect. In both cases, the fantasy genre comes out ahead. Everything has gained a reality the genre was missing, adding in suspension and pulling the reader into the world (because in our world, ANYONE can die. When that happens in the book you are reading, you feel a deeper connection with the people there. Empathy is a strong emotion).
In the end, killing your babies is the best advice that any writer can take up. It was lost for a while in the fantasy genre, but lately we have seen a resurgence of it. Because of this, fantasy in general has gained a new intensity and realness it had lost before. So, cheers to killing off your (fictional) babies, it makes the books that much better.