Suspense Without Death

I’d like to talk about suspense.

I often hear people complaining about certain TV shows, movies, books, and comics by saying that there is “no suspense” because “the main characters can’t die.” This can apply to anything from a TV show like “24” (where everyone knew that Jack Bauer had to live or else the series would end), a book series like Harry Potter where the books are named after Harry so of course he has to live, or to a webcomic like The Order of the Stick, where people always complain in the website’s forums about there being no danger to the main cast because they have “plot armor” (as in, their lives are protected because they’re needed for the plot).

I touched on this subject before in a series I wrote about how to use magic in your writing (You can find that series in three posts: The first post discusses 1. How to make your magic unique and 2. How to make rules so your magic makes sense, the second post discusses  3. How to break your own rules (and do it right) and 4. How to make the main character “special” in a world filled with magic, and the third post discusses 5. How to create danger and suspense in a world where magic can solve everyone’s problems (Also known as “The Superman Dilemma”) and 6. How to decide on scale and power level (no one should be over 9000).  Specifically, “The Superman Dilemma” is an idea that a character’s powers can be so strong that there is no suspense, such as because Superman is rarely in danger and you KNOW Superman won’t die because he’s Superman. The way I discussed getting around this dilemma is by putting the suspense not in whether Superman lives or dies, but instead in whether he succeeds or fails.

So summarize the concept I went over in the post about “The Superman Dilemma,” it basically goes like this: suspense doesn’t just come in whether Superman will die. It comes in whether everyone ELSE will die. Can Superman save them all in time, or will he fail? In a scenario like this, the suspense comes not only from the loss of other lives, but also from the emotional strain Superman faces when he realizes he wasn’t strong enough to save everyone. Similar turmoils occur frequently in other shows and books as well. A good example is Doctor Who. Everyone KNOWS the Doctor can’t die, because if he does, he just regenerates. But the suspense comes in wondering whether he can save everyone else, and we see his pain and his turmoil every time he fails someone who was counting on him.

Now, the original post I wrote about this dilemma was focused on the magic angle of suspense; specifically, the way you use these ideas to create suspense when you have a character with extreme powers and abilities (whether they be Superman’s superhero powers or the Doctor’s intelligence and cunning). However, this concept can be taken to a different level. What about if you have a character with NO powers?

I’m currently reading The Hunger Games. I haven’t yet seen the movies and I plan on finishing the books before I do so. (Spoilers to follow, so don’t read on if you don’t want me giving away the plot of the book). Now, The Hunger Games has no real magic in it (though the Gamemakers technological ability to do things like summon a giant wall of fire could almost be magic from a literary perspective). The main character, Katniss Everdeen, has to survive the games through nothing but her skills, cunning, and perseverance. Of course, I know she CAN’T die in the first book, because a) there’s two more books and b) I’ve seen previews for the second movie, Catching Fire that show her as the victor. Does this take away the suspense?

No. And here’s why.

Katniss isn’t a superhero, so she’s not expected to save anyone. If she does save one of the other Tributes, she does so because she is pure of heart, not because she’s there to save them. So the idea of “failing to save people” (as with Superman) doesn’t really apply to her. We expect her to have to kill the others. So if we remove BOTH the suspense of her dying (since she can’t) and the suspense of her failing to save others (since she isn’t expected to do so), then what suspense is there?

The suspense of her maintaining her humanity.

I’m about halfway through the book. I just read a scene where Katniss and the younger girl, Rue, are both hiding in the trees, trying to escape the other Tributes. Rue warns Katniss about a hive of genetically engineered wasps, and in exchange, Katniss warns Rue to escape before she unleashes the wasps on the other Tributes down on the ground. Two Tributes die because of Katniss’s actions, but we see this as a victory, because they were trying to kill Katniss first. She wins and defeats her enemies.

However, there are two Tributes so far that are NOT Katniss’s enemies: Rue and Peeta. Peeta is in love with Katniss and saves her life, not only refusing to attack her when he has the chance but warning her when others are coming. So by this point in the book, both Rue and Peeta have proven themselves to be friends and potential allies for Katniss. She won’t want to kill them, even if she’ll willingly kill any of the other Tributes.

This creates suspense, because even knowing Katniss has to live, the reader wonders, Will she have to kill her friends? I don’t want Katniss to have to kill Rue. I like Rue, and I want her to live. But even if she dies, there is suspense because I don’t want Katniss to be the one who kills her. Maybe Rue will be killed by another Tribute. Maybe she will die of the dangers around her in the wilderness. Maybe she will heroically sacrifice herself to save Katniss. I don’t know what will happen, but not knowing creates suspense. More than anything, I don’t want to see Katniss suffer the pain of murdering someone she sees as a friend. That pain, the pain Katniss would feel over having to kill someone she doesn’t want to kill, would be worse than Superman’s pain when he fails to save a life.

So you see, there can be suspense in many forms. Sometimes it’s not a question of “Will the main character die?” Sometimes, it’s a question of “What will the main character have to do to survive?” She might lose something deeper, some part of her good nature. And if she turns into a murderer to save herself, isn’t that a bigger defeat than seeing her die?

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5 thoughts on “Suspense Without Death”

  1. sometimes it’s not even about the others surviving… or the fact that the main character won’t die… sometimes it’s about how the character will come out on the other end… like with the Doctor how sometimes the things he goes through really messes him up… he doesn’t know what to do next or if he should even let anyone travel with him again… sometimes it’s the worry that the character will come out emotionally damaged… if they will still be that character you feel in love with… like a lot of people weren’t too happy with how Hunger Games ended because the ones that did survive were screwed up… it’s like they survived but they’re scarred for life… they’re are worst things that can happen to a character than just killing them off…

  2. WORSE THAN DEATH. WORSE THAN DEATH.

    I’m a fan of this being a problem in my books (both those I read and those I write) because, to us in our pampered, first-world lives, it’s actually pretty hard to think of a fate “worse than death.” We understand it as an abstract, but the vast majority of us never face it in any real way. A character dying is something we understand–most of us have experienced death and we understand its permanence. It hurts. We get that.

    We don’t really get “I wish I had died rather than become this,” though.

    So bringing that into someone’s life–as you mentioned The Hunger Games does by putting Katniss in a position where you have to wonder…who will she become in this arena?–through a character they love…that’s awesome to me. That’s powerful. That’s enlightening and, in many ways, more terrifying than plain old death.

    I often joke that, in my books, “only the lucky ones get to die.” It’s true that, more often than not, you can’t really kill off your main character (especially not early on. For instance, even if you WERE worried about Katniss dying in the games, you’d likely be pretty sure she’d make it through the first day safely, as you can see there’s still well over half the book left).

    BUT…that doesn’t mean they might not get destroyed in other ways. And, exactly like you said, that can be just as suspenseful and terrifying. Will that happy-go-lucky character I love deteriorate into a morose and bitter shell of what they once were? Will that innocent, hopeful kid become a harsh and violent anti-hero? What about my spunky, fun, snarky heroine? Will she become quiet and fearful after the traumas of her experiences?

    YOU’LL HAVE TO FIND OUT. MUAHAHAHA.

    1. Of course, I also have a rule in my books: ANYONE can die.

      And I do mean anyone.

      But yes, there’s a lot more that can happen besides people dying. There’s suffering. There’s change. There’s heartache and loss. It’s all a matter of perspective. Look at everything Jack Bauer went through on 24. Sure, HE survives. But he loses everything and everyone over and over again.

      1. I do like the “ANYONE CAN DIE” rule for my own books, too–I like to keep that fear alive >:D

        Jack Bauer is a great example. He’s alive…but how good does he feel about that life? How much does it cost him? Basically, everything he has. And that hurts. And that’s awesome.

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