Bringing Characters Back to Life

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Westeford
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Bringing Characters Back to Life

#1 Post by Westeford » Fri Aug 03, 2018 2:14 pm

People die when they are killed, right? Well not always, sometimes they come back for one reason or another.
I think we've all experienced something like this. You're enjoying a story, then one of the major characters die. You then grieve over them, and maybe cry. A lot of stories do this now more than ever.

From my understanding, a character's death should always serve a purpose. Whether it's to advance the plot, motivate the survivors, complete the dead character's goal, etc. You pretty much never kill a character purely for shock, or sadness or, "look guys we're edgy!" like for a certain character in Chicago P.D.

So what happens when they come back? This is something I don't fully understand. Many writers, viewers, critics, seem to believe that when a character dies, they should stay dead. and that if they come back it's immediately bad writing or cheap. (Of course there are exceptions, like Gandalf.)
I get that when it's written badly it hurts the story. Like their sacrifice feels pointless, or when they come back it dispels all the positive changes that came from their death. It's easy to screw up. But should it be avoided like the plague? I don't think so.

So what I want to ask about is how to write a character's return well?

The most common way for a character to return is via magic or magitek or whatever. Basically, use a spell, or phoenix down and they're back to normal. Now I'm not a fan of this method because when it happens it sets a dangerous precedent for story's future. "If this character came back like this, then couldn't those other characters be able to come back?" Taking away the reader's stress and confusing readers when that method isn't used later. So to fix that the magical revival method is limited in some way. Like by law, or only certain people can do it, or the side-effects.
Of course there's other ways like cloning, or fighting through hell, or comas.

For my story, I'm considering to bring back a character. I don't want it to be magical or something. I want to be able to foreshadow the method used for the character's revival, but not so much that it takes away the drama from their death. I also wanted to play around with the old trope. (Don't bother with CPR. If they're not breathing, they're dead.) So no disappearing bodies.
My reason for wanting to bring back this character is the impact on the story. The characters will change because of their death, and they will change from their revival. Their revival also serves as a dent in the antagonist's plans. The character's revival also doesn't restore the status quo. The other characters don't spend an entire chapter grieving and realizing their life has no meaning on for it all to be fixed by this character's revival.

I'm just rambling at this point, I mostly wanted to throw my thoughts out here. I want to hear your thoughts about reviving dead characters. What stories pulled it off masterfully? What mistakes can we avoid? Can killing a character and reviving a character still positively impact the story?

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Re: Bringing Characters Back to Life

#2 Post by traineroflegend » Fri Aug 03, 2018 3:40 pm

Buffy the Vampire Slayer did this twice (well, maybe three times) to great effect. Spoilers for a 15 year old show:

When Angel is "sent to Hell" (AKA killed), he comes back scarred and feral. He is a shell of his former self, forced to rediscover himself. At one point after he comes back, he feels like he shouldn't even be alive in the first place. He later finds a place for himself, and all is well.

When Buffy dies the second time, she is brought back by a spell her friends did. The city is infested with vampires and all sorts of demons. Life without Buffy is a constant struggle for the rest of them. So, they bring her back. The result is that she absolutely hates it. She hates being alive. Buffy feels like she did her job, and now she's been brought back by her selfish friends to live out her life in pain, in a world where everything hurts. It takes her a full season and a half to come to terms with this, and even then she's upset.

The show killed Buffy as a precaution in case the show got cancelled. When the show was brought back, fans immediately knew she would be coming back alive. The "drama" isn't necessarily gone, however. We got to see how the characters suffered because of her loss, and how their lives got significantly worse. We got to see how, even after Buffy came back, things were never the same for her or everyone else again. Then came conflict, where Buffy's friends were happy to have her back, but she wasn't happy. Conflict as Buffy distanced herself from her friends.

Killing a character and bringing them back can absolutely work, but just like how you made the audience suffer at their death, you must make the characters go through a process. It can't be "Joe is dead" followed by "Joe gets revived and goes back to his normal day job". There needs to be clear consequence for coming back to life. Something MUST be broken to balance everything out. Bringing a character to life can solve one conflict, but you need to bring an even better, more interesting one into the table.

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Re: Bringing Characters Back to Life

#3 Post by parttimestorier » Fri Aug 03, 2018 4:05 pm

I haven't gotten around to watching Buffy yet, but that sounds to me like they did a good job of it. I think that if you're going to bring a character back from the dead, it should definitely be a struggle for the character. Maybe they don't come back as exactly the same person they were before, either just because the trauma has changed their personality or because the magic or whatever involved affected their body, or both. Traineroflegend makes a good point about how bringing them back shouldn't just solve problems - it should create new problems as well. Foreshadowing the method of bringing the character back sounds like a good idea as well.
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Re: Bringing Characters Back to Life

#4 Post by Ezmar » Fri Aug 03, 2018 6:06 pm

You should also have in mind a picture of what the larger arc looks like. The problems with bringing a character back to life arise when the death and the revival seem like two separate events each serving a particular narrative purpose, with the latter undermining the former. However, if the death is done specifically with the revival in mind, as part of one overarching element, then it works much better.

Kind of an extreme example, but in my story, time travel is a thing, or more accurately time loops, and at one point, a character dies, and immediately the protagonists loop back. In this case, the resurrection is instantaneous, but it doesn't necessarily undermine the gravity of the death, since the death serves a function such that it isn't undermined by its reversal. Obviously this is just a seat of my pants comparison, but it sort of works.

Think of what you do and don't need to gain from the death. So long as you avoid milking the emotional response of "this event is permanent and irreversible, and this character is lost forever", you will have less problems if you do reverse it later on. Therefore, the death should have some other primary significance that lingers even after being brought back. Sure, you'll cheapen the "death is permanent" value of killing off a character, but if there are other, more pressing consequences, it can be more easily overlooked by the reader.

If the primary "meat" of the character dying is them just being dead and gone, then bringing them back undermines most of the point of killing them in the first place. But if, for instance, the character is killed before they can complete a critical task that only they are capable of, the consequences of which are severe and put the protagonists in a rough spot, then bringing them back still carries with it all that secondary created conflict.

(DISCLAIMER: I am a hobbyist and by no means an experienced writer. The information contained herein may or may not adhere to what is generally considered "good advice" by experts.)

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Re: Bringing Characters Back to Life

#5 Post by Zelan » Sat Aug 04, 2018 10:09 am

Another way to "kill" a character that hasn't been mentioned here is to make the protagonists and readers think that a character is dead, when it turns out they were alive all along. Obviously, this has different ramifications for the characters and story than a true death and revival, but can be used similarly.

The first example that comes to mind for me is from The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan (spoilers ahead). About halfway through the book, the characters run into a situation where their submarine is overheated and close to exploding. The main character's half-brother, Tyson, goes belowdecks to hold it together for as long as possible, giving all of the other characters a chance to escape. When the submarine explodes, Tyson is presumed dead. There are consequences on the main character - he feels guilty for never having accepted his half-brother as family - and on the story - there is now one less person to aid in the quest to rescue a missing friend. Later, it is revealed that Tyson survived the explosion because, as a Cyclops, he is immune to fire, and survived floating in the sea due to his connection with sea creatures, who helped him to find the other characters.

One additional thing that can be incorporated into the "he's actually not dead" trope that wasn't so much included in the above example is the difficulty that the not-actually-dead character has getting back to their friends - maybe all alone, maybe with a new character. Depending on the circumstances, there is also the opportunity for angst, with the question of "why did you assume I was dead" or "why didn't you come back for me" or something else along those lines; however, sometimes it makes more sense for the character to be understanding of why they were left behind/presumed dead, it really depends on the story.

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Re: Bringing Characters Back to Life

#6 Post by Katy133 » Sat Aug 04, 2018 11:38 am

This episode of Trope Talk touches upon both character deaths and ways to bring the character back.

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Re: Bringing Characters Back to Life

#7 Post by Westeford » Sat Aug 04, 2018 12:54 pm

Katy133 wrote:
Sat Aug 04, 2018 11:38 am
This episode of Trope Talk touches upon both character deaths and ways to bring the character back.
That video was what actually got me thinking about this subject. It's a good watch for sure.

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Re: Bringing Characters Back to Life

#8 Post by Mammon » Sat Aug 04, 2018 1:21 pm

Welp, seems like almost everything I was going to say has been said before. I might throw a few more examples of other shows into the mix, but I only really have one new thing to add, and it's probably not even going to be useful in your case. Oh well.

If death is reversable and the audience knows it, then it should always be the setting and the costs that make it significant. That character had a purpose, or otherwise still had to do something before dying. Or perhaps it was just a numbers game, and the odds went down for the heroes simply by being more outnumbered than before.

Dragonball Z does this quite well, at times. They have effectively made death just a temporary issue, and turned it from 'death' to 'no longer on the battlefield'. The characters have literally commented somewhat casually that they'd resurrect entire cities after not stopping the villain from blowing it up, but the deaths of some characters can still be quite an issue. Nappa killing so many didn't really affect the plot, rather than establish that there was no one else left to fight other than the three who were left alive in the end. And more importantly, it was an easy way to establish him as a real serious threat and thus make Vegeta an even more serious threat.

A series that clearly struggled with the concept of resurrection is Arrow. They had the Lazarus pit, and then realised they couldn't kill anyone off without people assuming the character would be resurrected. So they added a cost to the resurrection; the resurrected would be overcome with murderous bloodlust that had to be sated with death. Yeah, that didn't sate the audience either. So they had to destroy it entirely, and even that didn't solve the issue.


One trick that isn't used often, at least not well, (and my 'unique' contribution to this thread) is the Executioner. You cannot kill someone in the story without having the readers think that they're not actually dead, or that they'll be brought back. Unless the Executioner kills them. This is the guy (or gall) that has something that convinces the audience that when they kill someone, that person stays dead. This is the untouchable enemy that chases the cast and will end any local sub-plot when they appear, even if it's still halfway. This is the villain in D&D that uses disintegrate on the PC's body after killing them. This is the guy scheming in the shadows who knows what character arc is going on and kills them before it concludes, knowing fully that they kill the character arc itself too.

It's hard to do, but if you can create such a character you can also kill any character. There aren't a lot of examples I can give from the top of my head, and the few that you guys also know have never even killed anyone.
One would be Sparky Sparky Boom man from Avatar. He never actually killed anyone, but he certainly gave off a serious aura that suggested that if he would ever fight or kill any of the main cast, they would actually die. If his head lazer would actually hit, it would be over for that person. He truly suggested strength and danger.
Another would be Harrison Wells (the first, evil one) from the Flash. He was keeping up a friendly facade, but the audience knew from the start that he was a ruthless psychopath. If he wanted someone dead, that person would stay dead. Granted, the only time he really killed an important member of the cast it was reversed using time travel not soon after, but we knew there was going to be time travel during that death. But if the writers would've wanted someone important to die, they would've just needed him to kill that person and then pretend to be mourning afterwards.

Get someone like that. A cold, detached and efficient person, for example. Have them kill the character, shoot three more bullets through the skull to ensure death, check vitals to ensure they're gone, and then take away the body for cremation. Someone who ensures the audience that they make sure that the character is dead and will remain dead.


For your story, the issue probably lies in the balance of introducing and properly foreshadowing this method of revival but not making it too obvious. And that's a real thin line. Make it a magical do-dat capable of whatever the plot needs of it (see every superhero movie from the last few years), and the resurrection won't seem logical or earned. Establish too much that it can't be used for the revival, and the revival will be dumb. Do neither, and the revival will be too predictable. I don't know the details of what you're going to do, but I hope that you can find a proper gap in this conundrum.
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Re: Bringing Characters Back to Life

#9 Post by Westeford » Sun Aug 05, 2018 1:44 pm

I've been brainstorming how to write my character's death and revival. So this is what I'm considering.

There are a few things I wanted to avoid/keep. Those things being:
1. No Having the body disappear and everyone assume the character is dead. I and I think most audiences will never believe a character is dead unless there is some kind of body or remains.
2. No Magical revival. My story is more or less set in the modern world and implied to be a few years in the future. Basically it has to be explainable according to the rules of science. Basically the method can be implausible, but not impossible.
3. The dying character could still have actually died. The character doesn't think "Oh well, I'll just wake up later." They think "Oh crap, I'm gonna die."
4. No one else knows how they survived. This is probably the biggest one. The method is a mystery to everyone except for the dying character. (S)he doesn't know it was possible until they wake up.
5. The character is targeted and murdered.

This list is flexible, but I'd like to keep it like this.

Anyway, I came up with two ideas. A recent one and an early one.

1. Body double.
The character is knocked out, then their body is replaced with a similar corpse with the character's clothes on. The new corpse would also be mutilated and maybe decapitated.

Pros:
-Simple
-Easily explained.

Cons:
-Have to explain the existence of another character that was probably already dead before the story started.
-Explain why the killer switched bodies
-At least one person will know that they're still alive.


2. Character's body.
The dead character is knocked out and they are killed in a way that would kill anyone else. They're not breathing and not moving. Everyone is sure they're dead.
But their body is different from everyone else's. They wake up a few hours later, but their body aches like heck. They have an artificial body that is indistinguishable from an organic body, but is also slightly more sturdy.
In my story, cyborgs are not commonplace.

Pros:
-Can use this to expand some of the characters' backstories.

Cons:
-Possibly jumping the shark

I'm leaning more towards the second option, but I'd like to hear what you think. Any advice is also appreciated.

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Re: Bringing Characters Back to Life

#10 Post by Mammon » Sun Aug 05, 2018 5:22 pm

I wouldn't do the body double thing. It could work if the people who 'killed' the guy wanted to fake his death and planned accordingly (and have the skill and resources to pull it off), but I honestly doubt the validity of why they would do this. If MC and friends would know that their friend was still alive, why would it matter? If the main cast could barge in to get their pall back, then the organisation/killer is probably not resourceful enough to pull off the switch anyway. Or the bad guys can pull the switch off, but there's no way that the MC could get their friend back anyway, whether by force or through official channels. So there's no reason to actually fake his death rather than just kidnap him.

Not to mention, the local authorities would still do DNA tests on the corpse to identify it. Then they'd decline that the remains were once their friend and thus theirs to collect, tip off the cast some other way such as through the news, or any other way to make the fake death plan fall apart. A rational bad guy would either kill or kidnap: kill to solve the issue completely, kidnap if they'd need the guy alive for whatever reason. If there's no body and no crime scene, the police won't be on alert and probably buy any false evidence such as the guy going on a sudden vacation or running away from home. Much more efficient, and there's little that the cast could do about it without evidence. So what if the MC may still have hope that their friend is alive? In between any defensible position or a secret location to keep the friend prisoner, it doesn't change anything for the bad guys.


An option might be the nightshade trick from Romeo and Juliet. You might stretch reality a bit by saying that the knife that stabbed but didn't pierce through any vitals made the character appear dead because it was coated with Atropa Belladonna (nightshade). But it would allow the cast to see the body and establish that it didn't have any vitals. He still bled out quite a bit and had a gut wound that looked serious enough to kill him, too. He's then taken to the morgue, where he was taken and sedated before he could wake up. Granted, that does suggest that the killer knows that they're not dead, but it's a lot easier for them to pull off than the body switch.

Another option would be a much simpler variant of your cyborg idea. Instead of making him a surprise cyborg, he has something much simpler like a pacemaker or a futuristic implant for some other medical reason. He's dying, his friends treat his wounds and try to reanimate him, they fail and consider him dead, and then the pacemaker kicks in. It keeps his blood pumping for hours on end and the wound through the lungs that he sustained allows air to reach the aveoli and thus supply his body with just enough oxygen to survive without breathing. He's still slowly suffocating, but that's good. Your body can't registed oxygen deficiency, but it can register too much CO2. Once those alarms trigger, the body will start gasping for air automatically. That's what you're trying to do with reanimation, in fact. Not blow air into the victim's lungs to give them oxygen, but CO2 so that they'll be triggered to start breathing. And presto, a few hours of him appearing dead before he can rise from the grave without anyone else having to know. (because disappearing bodies are never suspicious.)
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Re: Bringing Characters Back to Life

#11 Post by Zelan » Sun Aug 05, 2018 7:37 pm

I actually think the body double thing works quite well, depending on the story. Mammon's criticisms of this method are all perfectly valid, but most of them are based on the fact that your killer/antagonist doesn't have the resources to pull it off. If they do have those resources, it's pretty simple.

This was used very well in the book Scorched by Mari Mancusi. The main character's mother had a history of struggling with depression, so it was shocking but believable to the main character when she discovered what she thought was her mother's body after shooting herself in the head. It's revealed near the end of the book that the antagonist kidnapped her mother and swapped her out with the corpse of a woman of similar stature. Without a head, it was hard to identify the woman by sight, and the antagonist had plenty of resources with which to pay off the people identifying the body through DNA. (Also, depending on the setting of your story, teh authorities could be eliminated altogether and DNA testing wouldn't be an issue - although in your case I think it might be something that needs to be addressed.)

As for Mammon's question of "why fake the death if the character only needs to be kidnapped," faking the character's death serves two purposes that I can think of for the antagonist. One - assuming that the others believe the character is really dead, they won't go looking for their friend. Two - the presumed death of the kidnapped character can throw the team off their game and lower morale to the point where they might question whether it's worth it to keep fighting.

Your second option could work fine, and I think Mammon's covered some pretty good options, but if you find it hard to justify, the audience will likely pick up on the fact that you're having trouble explaining just what happened, and it'll be a blow to your story.

Really, the method you use depends on your exact story, so a lot of things could work if done well, even the things that you're trying to avoid.

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Re: Bringing Characters Back to Life

#12 Post by MI_Buddy » Mon Aug 06, 2018 8:23 pm

The biggest thing that makes revivals feel cheap to me is when they come about as a result of some unforeshadowed ability. If something earlier in the story or in the story's world is relevant to a character coming back to life, IMO it should be referenced early.

If things are foreshadowed effectively, I don't mind. A lot of revivals though feel like a sort of retcon, because when we aren't told the story's world is different from our own we assume it mirrors our own (or maybe lines up with tropes common for the story's genre).
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Re: Bringing Characters Back to Life

#13 Post by Ezmar » Mon Aug 06, 2018 11:40 pm

Basically it comes down to something I'm discovering applies to any aspect of story writing. And that is this: If you're unsure about something you're writing, try finding additional ways for it to be more relevant to the story as a whole. A death and resurrection feels cheap if the resurrection seems to be there solely for the purpose of bringing a character back to life. But if it ties in to other aspects of the story in a relevant manner, then it feels more justified to the reader, and they'll be more willing to accept it.

It's the same as writing filler. Some readers will complain if there are long segments of fluff with very little plot advancement occurring. However, if each "pointless" scene contains major character development, or even better, foreshadowing, all of a sudden those scenes aren't so pointless anymore. Same goes for a Deus ex Machina like bringing a character back to life. If you just bring them back, that's lame. If you use it as the basis for character development, that's better. If you tie it to other parts in the story, both before and after, that's even better. And as always with foreshadowing, the balance is important.

If you have a twist and you want it to be effective and surprising to the reader, my preferred way to do it is to simply avoid giving anything away explicitly, but otherwise simply writing with the twist in mind. It should be obvious that it's coming to someone who knows it's coming, but not otherwise. That's how you get that moment of "genius" where the reader realizes that all the clues were there, they just didn't see them. Only the secret is that they're not clues at all. You didn't leave them there on purpose; you just didn't hide the twist. That way, all you have to do is periodically ask yourself if you're drawing too much attention to it. If the foreshadowing is treated with the same importance as any other detail, the reader won't even notice it. And if they do, then they'll feel smart for "figuring it out", which is still a win because readers love to feel smart.

That's just my take on all this. With good foreshadowing, the reader will excuse a lot of "bad" storytelling. Most "bad" storytelling is just stuff happening that feels unjustified. If you justify things properly, there's usually no problem. The trick is figuring out when you've justified enough.

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