Many years ago, I was playing Diablo (One, as it turned out), when I heard about trainers – software downloads that allowed a character infinite lives, infinite money, etc. It sounded like a good idea at the time, so I quickly attached the trainer to my game and…almost immediately lost interest. You see, without the threat of death, the cost, and without the gradually doling-out of increased wealth and equipment upgrades, the game – or the novel – is robbed of its dramatic tension and suspense.
Okay, you say, sure. But a complete party wipe? A Red Wedding? Yes. It’s the same concept on a larger scale. If such events don’t happen every so often, the world in which they transpire won’t seem quite as deadly and, ironically, as real. Because these things do happen in the R.W. Consider the French and Russian royal families. Or the Alamo. Or the 54th Regiment at Ft. Wagner. Or Custer’s Land Stand. Okay, in retrospect, that one was gratifying, but I’m certain it wasn’t so gratifying to the relatives of those lost. And there are smaller, more relatable tragedies – entire families lost in car crashes, botched burglaries, etc. I don’t mean to suggest these events are remotely entertaining; rather, I hold them up as things that do happen in life and must happen in fantasy.
We’re a funny people, we readers and/or gamers. We’re willing to believe in elves and aliens, but ask us to accept a world in which the “good guys” never die? No. Effing. Way. And that’s because, on some level, we need it. We’ve all lost loved ones; we all will. We know that life can bring boundless joy, but also despair. Even in the midst of experiencing that boundless joy, some of us are constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop.
And the ancients knew it, too. Look at Greek Tragedy. Or Elizabethan and Jacobean. Oedipus and Hamlet have to die. Siegfried, too. And this brings us what the Greeks called “Catharsis” – a purging of pent up emotions, thought and proven to be healthy for the viewer. And again, it rings true. Lincoln was assassinated. Gandhi and MLK, too. The hero dies. Of course, I’m not advocating for this in the R.W. But I’m saying it happens. Too often.
Sometimes, though, it gives rise to another useful dramatic device: revenge. While it’s not always socially acceptable, revenge is something most of us crave at one time or another, but are not always able, for whatever reason, to execute or obtain. So, it satisfies something rather dark within us, some sense of schadenfreude, to see it carried out in fiction and in games. And perhaps it prevents us from caving in to our baser impulses.
Now, sometimes, an author will bring the hero back, an event, of course, that does not happen in real life. Heck, I’ve even been guilty of this device. But it has to serve a purpose, to fit into the larger narrative. And there has to be a cost. What will it be for Jon Snow? I can’t begin to guess, but I am certain it will be both awful and profound.
Just as it should be.