Sunday, October 22, 2006

Death of the Protagonist

As if I don’t have enough on my plate – unfinished writing projects, a demanding job, even more demanding family life, music to learn, and migraines that reproduce, mutate, and slowly infest every inch of my head the way those cane frogs are plaguing Australia. Nasty little buggers. Anyway, on top of all of that, I get these questions that not even the migraines can quash. What makes a romantic comedy timeless? Is there a purpose behind battle speeches? An now, the latest questions that demand exploring -- the death of the protagonist(s). Why do we kill them and when should they die?

Killing off the protagonist at story’s end is not only about getting shock value, creating emotion, or closing an un-closeable story. While the death of the protagonist may accomplish those things, there also has to be a story purpose for the character’s demise. But what I read are a lot of wannabe's stories where the protagonist’s death feels like an after thought tacked on because the author wanted to add a few tears, a suspenseful ending, or a solution to an impossible situation. Or, he had third act writer's block.

I’ve begun dissecting and categorizing a few films where the protagonist(s) die at the end but I could certainly use additional suggestions and slashers do not count. Slashers are an exception to my “death with a purpose” theory because in slashers, death can be utterly pointless since the point of the whole film IS death. Usually, somebody survives (room for a sequel), but even if the protagonist does die, it is often to end the film with a bang -- a bizarre, unusual, or totally unexpected way to knock the protagonist off.

At least, that's what I'm thinking NOW. These thoughts are subject to change following my little study. I have ten films on my “death of a protagonist" study list and they will take some time for me to dissect and theorize but the floor is also open for suggestions.

Starting --- now.


EM said...

The Sixth Sense? (beginning and end)
Dog Day Afternoon
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Arlington Road

Optimistic_Reader said...

The Posiedon Adventure - the original one, haven't seen the remake and not sure how much they changed.

Reservoir Dogs - I suppose it is really a muti-protagonist story but Mr. Orange is the lynchpin character.

Or how about those films where the character you think is the protagonist is killed off early on - Psycho did it first, but Scream pulled off a similar trick. Okay, both horror. But I would say the purpose is purely to tell the audience that anything can happen, so it's a useful trick for those horror writers.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Oh great. Now I have to watch Reservoir Dogs..

Milehimama said...

I felt so cheated and pissed off at the end of Pay It Forward when Haley Joel Osmet dies. It didn't fit with the rest of the movie, and the mom/teacher coping following his death was glurge, glurge, glurge. I've never watched the movie again and always tell people to skip it.
How about The Butterfly Effect, where the protagonist dies at the end, but before he's born? I hated the ending, but it did fit into the movie and didn't jar me out of that world.
Anything Shakespeare, but you pretty much know going in who's gonna get it. No surprises there.
Dogville - the main protagonist is Nicole Kidman, but all of the other players, even the major ones, die at the end. It's a very strange movie, anyway.
Charlotte's Web - yeah, it's a kid movie, but it's also a classic. Who hasn't seen Charlotte's Web?
What are your 10 films?

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Charlotte's Web! Never would have thought of that! Was going to buy it for my niece for her birthday. Took her mom to see it when she was a little girl and I know I have the book around here some place for comparison.

Unk said...

Not much of a RomCom writer but sacrifice does come to mind i.e., the Protagonist sacrificing his life for either the love interest OR something thematic...

For me, THE EXORCIST comes to mind... LOL.


Milehimama said...

I didn't consider the priest the protagonist in The Exorcist. I would have said Regan, but I reread and mapped the beats out of the script a couple of weeks ago (I'm tweaking the pacing in my horror movie) and to me it appears the mother is the actual protagonist.
She's in virtually every scene, and we get the clearest view of her life, at parties, being invited to the White House, her relationship with Regan's dad, etc.
Of course, this doesn't even begin to delve into the tearjerkers, like "My Life" or "My Life Without Me" , in which the entire movie centers around the death of the protagonist.

Steel Magnolias?

Try posting on the Wordplay forums - bet you get a ton of better responses than I could post!

Mama Writes

MaryAn Batchellor said...

I didn't really think of Shelby as a major protagonist in Steel Magnolias...which brings up another issue. Do I want to look at just primary characters who die or any protagonist? Cripes, this keeps getting more complicated the deeper I get into it.

As for Wordplay, I love that site. It is the most useful screenwriting site and forum on the web in my opinion. However, I have a gift for making an ass of myself on that board so I've refrained from posting much, if any, for the past few months.

The Moviequill said...

take a look at The Departed, now there's an example that to me failed

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Still haven't gotten to see Departed, Todd. Maybe I can go tomorrow.

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Capri said...

How about the writers just getting sick of the character and wanting to kill him/her off? And sometimes main characters die because they are Mary Sues. Charlotte in Charlotte's Web would fit the Mary Sue category if she wasn't a spider, and that book mixes absolute fantasy with some realism, keeping some aspects of the creatures real and others totally going anthropomorphic. The animals talk and feel like humans, but the realism is that the pig likes slops and does piggy things, and the spider, unreal: writes in the web - realistic: spins webs and dies after her suitably short lifespan is up. Most glurges seem to be geared for children, it's strange how come so many adults love the worst smarmy stuff when it comes in forwards but they'd probably get seriously bored with it any other time.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Capri, I don't really think of Charlotte as the primary protagonist (Wilbur) but her death plays a vital part of the storytelling. In this case, she must die in order for the story to continue forever, for her to become somewhat immortal, kind of like Pay It Forward.,