Attached at the eyeballs

Non-marketing weekend post:

A lot of people this week were upset that the TV show Game of Thrones killed some main characters unexpectedly. And when I say upset, I mean upset:

(warning: contains spoilers that you already know about)

Mashable has a list of angry tweet reactions, and John Cole is pretty livid:

If George R.R. Martin had written Star Wars, Leia would have taken a blaster shot and kicked in the opening scene, C-3-PO and R2-D2 would have been demolished by the jawas, Han would have kicked it in the cantina, and Luke would have been shot up by the Sand People. The only thing going into the Empire Strikes Back would be the ghost of Obi Wan.

But then again, even that wouldn’t have sucked as much as the prequels.

Why do we get so very upset when imaginary people we’ve never met pretend to die?

Confession: I haven’t watched GoT, but I was pretty miffed when Downton Abbey did broadly similar things to its characters. It may or may not be crazy, but lots of us do it.

Part of the answer is that we get attached to characters as if they’re real people. A friend once told me that there was a part cut out of Austin Powers 2 that subverted this, by having a random henchman fall into lava in regular action movie style, and then cutting to his grieving family mourning his loss – apparently the editors thought audiences wouldn’t take this well.

But unlike real deaths we’re often entertained by the fictional kind – Les Miz is probably the most popular musical ever, and it spends its entire course feeding sympathetic cast members to join the choir invisible, before bringing them back in its closing scene to sing, literally, as an invisible choir.

A few years back paper in the Journal of Consumer Research tried to explain why people sometimes use negative emotions like this as entertainment. It found that the the key to our enjoyment of things like horror films, is a knowledge that the movie is fake, so that our fear feels controllable, even when we are transported into the films world (Andrade & Cohen, 2007).

That’s probably true, but isn’t the whole answer. As John Cole points out, it would have been terrible for Star Wars to randomly Kill Han Solo. But at the same time, those films wouldn’t have been nearly so good if Obi Wan and Darth Vader had lived on to protracted and quiet retirements. Clearly there are better and worse ways to do it.

My theory is that a properly satisfying death is one that pulls off an act of emotional judo, whereby the strong negative emotions from the death are flipped into the momentum of a larger dramatic turn.

In Vader’s case, his death adds poignancy to his redemption, and to Luke’s growth as the lead sympathetic character. In Obi Wan’s case, his death builds the all-reaching menace of Vader and the Empire, and supports Luke’s growth into accepting his place as a Jedi. You might quibble with me over the dramatic particulars here, but the general point is that the emotion from both deaths catapults larger forces forward within the films, and that’s what makes the pain satisfying. When shows get you attached to a character then kill them suddenly, without integration into the major dramatic dynamics, that is when we feel a pain that doesn’t have shape or meaning, which is aversive and scary.

When shows do this to us, its easy to get angry at the writer. Jullian Fellowes had to make explanations to the papers after what he pulled in Downton (“uh, the actor wouldn’t come back for even a few episodes next season so we couldn’t have him just move away or something”), and we were pretty grumpy at him because that explanation was so lame (he must have known the actor’s decision all season, so he had plenty of time to anticipate it).

When people die in real life there usually isn’t anybody to blame, so we search, most often in vain, for meaning. If there is someone at fault we struggle between the draws of vengeance and forgiveness. But in the world of fiction, we know there’s a godlike writer pulling the strings, even if the best writers do say that characters develop minds of their own.

Because of this, we make an implicit deal with this storyteller: we invest our emotions into their hands, on the understanding that they will rile us up, and make us feel things, but that they won’t be cruel and make it too hard to bear. When Fellowes or Martin break this implicit pact, we feel betrayed. We get over it soon enough, because, hey, it’s just fiction. But the emotion itself is real – almost as much so as the emotions they evoked out of us in the first place from our original suspension of disbelief.


Andrade, E., & Cohen, J. (2007). On the Consumption of Negative Feelings. Journal of Consumer Research, 34(3), 283-300.

p.s., Ok, this was a semi-marketing post. Sue me.


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