I’m not a huge fan of stories where all the heroes die. Sorry, “Game of Thrones.” That’s too high a body count for my tastes. I get that once in a while major characters have to take a dirt nap. Without the possibility of the occasional death, stories lack tension. However, if the death count is too high, I notice.
Once I realize that my favorites are dying right and left I stop having favorites. With no favorite characters, the book itself is no longer a favorite. That explains why even well written series get dropped from my reading list. (again, “Game of Thrones.”)
Maybe it’s my real world experience with death. Literature loves the idea of the “heroic death.” The soldier dies to win the battle. It’s a “good” death. The bad guys are defeated and the good guys win. In the real world the bad guys are allies five years later. The war is soon forgotten. A spouse suffers pain and loss her whole life. Children grow up without a parent. In twenty years History may say that maybe we weren’t exactly the good guys in the first place. Real life is complicated. Real death is complicated.
Of course, when literature conveys the true human cost of death, it has weight and seriousness. Drama is deepened. The hero doesn’t even have to die, being in serious danger is enough. The horror of loss can more easily conveyed when the body count isn’t too high. After a certain number, even the most tragic of deaths become statistics.
At that point we might as well have stories about zombie hordes. In zombie stories people have been completely dehumanized. They are nothing but a menace to be killed. No truce or future friendship is possible with zombies. The classic zombie is a mindless killing machine that must be destroyed.
The only time we have a glimpse of tragic human loss in a zombie story is when the zombie is recognized. Personal connection reminds us that those mindless horrors were once human. That’s the key to making death in a story count; it has to be the death of a real three dimensional person. Too many stories up the body count for shock value and lose track of what makes death such a loss.
-Raymond M. Coulombe