Death is one of life’s few absolute certainties. Others include taxes and the fact that every person will, at some point, step in a puddle of water on the bathroom floor while wearing socks. Yes, life can be cruel.
Death is inevitable. For the most part, even fiction acknowledges this. What some stories don’t guarantee is that characters will stay dead. I’ve discussed how to kill off fictional characters, and even mentioned temporary death as a video game cliché, but I think it’s still worth taking a look at how characters in some stories recover from death as easily as getting over a cold.
There are endless possibilities for cheating death in fiction, going all the way back to classical mythology. In Greco-Roman myths, death was a literal place from which a surprising number of people managed to escape: Heracles and Orpheus, among others.
The past few decades have given us an endless array of methods for cheating death, especially in geekier media like comics, video games, and fantasy fiction.
Here are some of my favorites.
Be ye warned, here there be minor spoilers.
How often dead characters have been restored to life because someone went back in time to rescue them! Thanks to the butterfly effect, tiny decisions in the past can have huge consequences in the future. Probably my favorite example of time travel resurrecting a dead character comes from Chrono Trigger, pretty much the greatest RPG ever made, in which characters travel to the exact moment of a man’s death to save his life.
There is no single explanation for this one—comic book characters are revived in such a staggering variety of ways that I can’t even begin to list them all. A mutant’s seeming death triggers her evolution into a more advanced mutant. A superhero’s innate healing abilities pull him back from the brink of death. A villain fakes his death by a stupidly elaborate scheme. Really, the possibilities are countless.
When in doubt, magic is the ultimate deus ex machina. Magic is mysterious and inexplicable by its very nature. If a writer resurrects characters by magic, who is there to argue? Miracles, such as the triumphant return of Aslan or Gandalf, fall into this category, which also includes medicines like the chocolate-coated pill from The Princess Bride.
By technology I mean magic as it is called in sci-fi stories. Let’s face it: advanced technology and supernatural magic are practically the same thing in some science fiction.
This metaphysical concept has been lifted from various religions and adapted to everything from Avatar: The Last Airbender to Doctor Who. (The Doctor’s regeneration is basically sci-fi reincarnation.) Characters may technically die, but reincarnation allows the narrative to bring them back.
This brings us to ghosts, phantoms, and other not-alive states of being. Again, even if the story considers characters dead, they’re still fulfilling the roles of living persons by lingering as spirits.
This one annoys me. (All the same, I’ve used it more often in my writing than I care to admit!) When a character seems to die, the narrative treats them as dead… until they turn out to have been alive all along. Fake deaths generally cheapen the reactions of living characters. Responses like mourning, grief, and anger become less meaningful when they’re revealed to have been unnecessary. Besides, fake deaths are generally predictable.
I think temporary death is a valid storytelling trope, but I prefer death in fiction to be permanent. Death is more realistic, and carries much more weight, when it’s treated as an everlasting reality instead of a fleeting condition.
Anyone who knows anything about video games probably knows that Aerith dies in Final Fantasy VII. Partway through the story, this cheerful flower vendor is impaled by the villain. That’s it. There’s no resurrection, no last-minute deus ex machina. In the game, she is dead. The other characters mourn her… and so does any player whose heart isn’t made of stone.
Death is tragic. It often seems meaningless. However, in storytelling, that miraculous medium which makes all things meaningful, death matters—especially when it lasts more than a few minutes.