“Right now I feel like I could take on the whole Empire myself.”
Recognize that quote? Of course, you do. Dak [or Dack, depending on the source] was Luke Skywalker’s gunner in the battle scene early in “The Empire Strikes Back.” The moment he uttered those fateful words, every thinking being in the theater knew that he was toast.
As a writer and as a viewer, I am irked when I am aware of the writing — which is to say, when I am aware of the open manipulation of my sympathies. When this happens, it creates the opposite effect. Instead of being sympathetic, and later saddened at the sudden and wholly unanticipated demise of said sympathetic and startlingly wrongly optimistic character, I sit there thinking, “Really? They’re doing that?” And the inevitable demise has no impact whatsoever.
Don’t get me wrong. Writing is manipulation. But good writing doesn’t let you know it’s happening. The use of this particular cliché undercuts the surprise, the shock, the pathos. Maybe I am oversensitive to it, but my resentment is at the clumsiness of the attempt, of the contempt of the writer for his/her audience. [I await the comments of any of my readers who wish to point out instances of my doing exactly this. Never said I was perfect.]
What brought this to mind was the mini-series “Fargo,” set in the same world as the great Coen brothers movie. Dominated by the brilliant performances of Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman and Allison Tolman, the plotting and writing have been gleefully perverse, giving me a great deal of pleasure in the twists, never mind that the three hitmen and the one amateur murderer have been exceptionally careless in leaving behind video evidence, fingerprints, witnesses and so forth.
But along comes Episode 9, “A Fox, a Rabbit and a Cabbage.” Lester’s approach to Malvo is both dangerously stupid and extremely out of character, forcing the plot points, but that’s just bad plotting. The invocation of Dak comes from the monologue of Lester’s new wife, Linda — a sad story of her sad childhood, and how her hopes that her Prince Charming would come and here he is in the form of Lester and isn’t everything going to be wonderful. And we immediately know that she is doomed.
It happened in “Dexter,” on Rita’s last episode in Season 4. She expressed her hope in the future and delight that everything seemed to be working out well for them at last, and I felt sadness at the termination of Julie Benz’s contract. Robert, my son, said he saw her death coming from the first episode of that season. Somewhere, Dak was yelling, “Girl! Get out of town now!”
So, here endeth the lesson. If you want to surprise your viewer or reader, don’t tell them the character is going to die. We may still like the character — but we’re not going to respect its creator.