(Note: all the character deaths/resurrections I’m going to discuss here are well past what I consider the Spoiler Statute of Limitations, but just in case, I’ll be using examples from Buffy and Season 2 of Doctor Who.)
A common view among genre fic fans is that resurrection of a character ruins the impact of the character’s prior death, cheapening the emotional moment. I used to hold this view pretty rigorously myself. As my philosophy of life develops, though, I’m starting to see it differently. There are a number of reasons why character resurrection shouldn’t be overused, but I’m no longer going to stand behind the “it cheapens the impact of the original death.” To explain why, I’m going to go into my personal philosophical journey a bit.
For most of my life, I had a very ending-centric view of life and its meaning. I’d have agreed with Aristotle that you can’t know if a life is good or bad until you’ve seen its end. I believed that the future outweighed the past, that a happy ending would make up for any amount of suffering, that a tragic ending meant all the joys and pleasures experienced on the way were worthless. It helped that I believed in heaven, and sometimes hell (although never the flamey-torture variety). From that point of view, someone’s ending state is vastly more important, because it’s eternal, while anything that happens to them in life is merely the blink of an eye. I extrapolated this same attitude to stories. Although, say, a marriage at the end of a romantic comedy isn’t eternal in the same way that an afterlife would be eternal, it serves the same purpose: if a story ends happily, I can go on imagining the characters being happy indefinitely. Happy is where they landed: it’s their ending state, their resting state, and there’s a kind of permanence or finality to it, as long as no further stories are told about them. To my teleological mind, how characters end up is the most important thing about them. I have a long history of being unable to understand how people could find a book or movie dark and depressing if it ended happily. As long as everything turned out okay in the end, it didn’t really matter how much the characters suffered in the meantime.
Obviously this view is very connected to Christian theology, although I knew plenty of Christians who didn’t see things this way, and there are probably secular ways to frame the same attitude. For me, though, my need to believe that the universe could have a happily-ever-after ending was inextricably linked with my belief in a deity; or at least, my fervent desire that a deity exist. It was a shift in that philosophy that allowed me to fully break away from a god and religion I no longer intellectually believed in.
The shift was profound and sudden; I can name you the hour, the place, the book I was reading, and the music I was listening to at the time. (10 am on a spring morning. The coffee shop attached to a grocery store in Decatur, GA. Remembering Hypatia by Brian Trent, which I never finished reading. “Bad Spell” by Judi Chicago.) I suddenly felt something I had never felt before: that it would be okay if I died in pain, in fire, if the last moments or hours or weeks of my life were unrelenting agony, and I never got an afterlife, a resurrection. It would be okay if I didn’t get a happy ending, because the ending would not negate all the good and beautiful things that had also been in my life. The ending is not somehow more real, more special than any of the other moments. This was not in any way an intellectual realization: it was an emotional revolution, starting in my gut and shaking my entire being. I spent most of the day near tears and acutely aware of the poignancy of each moment. I remember picking up one of the children I cared for at work and holding her tight, feeling the preciousness and fragility of her, of myself, of the simple trust and love a three-year-old can feel for a caring adult. She would suffer later in life. So would I. The closeness that was between us now wouldn’t last… I would take another job, she would grow up, and 20 years from now she likely wouldn’t even remember me. None of that made that moment of holding her on the playground any less real.
Over the course of the next few days the feeling faded slowly, and I went back to interacting with the world in my normal way. But my underlying philosophy had changed. A Doctor Who quote from several years later sums up my new philosophy: “The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice-versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant.”
Back to stories, and character deaths. I was focused for a long time on the final piece of the Doctor Who quote: the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant. Even if a story, a relationship, a life ended unhappily, the moments of joy and beauty that occurred along the way were just as real, just as important, just as weighty. It’s only recently that I’ve begun seeing how the reverse is also true. Even if a sorrow ends, even if a pain goes away, even if everything ends up okay, that doesn’t make the pain and suffering that were experienced in the past less real, less important, less weighty.
So you see where I’m going with this. I’d argue that most of the impact of a character’s death (for me, at least) comes from identifying with the feelings of other characters in the story. The grief of the character’s loved ones is what really brings it home for me. I’m making that point because I think it’s also possible to grieve on one’s own behalf, as the viewer: being sad that you won’t get to enjoy that character any more. That kind of grief is much less potent to me, for two reasons. First, I can in fact continue to enjoy that character, by re-watching or re-reading. Sure, I won’t get any new material, but that is a sad fact of all fiction at some point, whether the characters live or die. Second, as deeply as I love so many fictional characters, they are not in fact my friends and family and lovers. Grieving for a character on my own behalf doesn’t approach the level of pain that grieving for them on the behalf of someone in-story who loves them. It’s through another character’s eyes that I enter that cathartic sorrow (which, in turn, allows me to process my own feelings about my own loved ones in complicated ways.)
And the grief that a character feels when their loved one dies is still every bit real, even if they come back back. After a character resurrection, it becomes possible for me to watch through their death scene and think, “But it’s okay, she’ll come back and then they won’t be sad anymore.” And thinking that lets me escape a little bit from the oppressive grief I otherwise feel on their behalf. But it’s a false escape, it’s based in the idea that suffering isn’t suffering as long as it ends someday. The grief of the Scoobies when Buffy dies is no less potent and painful just because she comes back later. Their future suffering is alleviated — they don’t have to deal with the pain of missing her after she comes back — but the pain they felt in the past isn’t changed.
In a way, a character’s resurrection can serve as a test of sorts. A test of the viewer’s ability to let go of the the ending-oriented philosophy that we so often use to soften blows in real life. If you are shaken with sorrow on the behalf of a character who’s just lost someone they love, do you let that sorrow be just as real, just as potent, when you’ve seen the future and know they’ll come back? Or do you escape the sorrow with the comfort of a happier future? (Not that that’s always the wrong choice. Sometimes I emotionally detach from stories because I just can’t handle it right now. But I really value the way that wholehearted emotional engagement with a story helps me process ideas and feelings I have in real life, even when doing so is genuinely painful, and if I’m going to do that I want to do it in accordance with my actual values and philosophies.)