Heroes Don’t Die. But What If They Did?

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I would say that this post has spoilers for The Martian, but my whole point is that the book’s ending ISN’T a spoiler…

What is it about stories that make us so sure of a happy ending?

Not every book ends happily, of course, but as I read The Martian I knew that Andy Weir wasn’t going to let Mark Watney die at the end.  I mean, how depressing would that be, to read about someone surviving incredibly dangerous situations time and time again only to have the launch fail or for him to have made some sort of fatal mistake just before the crew picked him up? I also knew that the book was popular before I started reading it.  Surely, I thought, it wouldn’t be this popular if he died.

But then I thought, what would happen if someone wrote a “survival story” only to have the character die at the very end? How would people react? My gut is telling me there would be outrage.  Granted, I’ve read at least a couple of series where the main character/hero dies at the end.  But in this case, the author kind of cheats.  You get invested in the character over several books before he or she dies.  But what if it all happened in the scope of a single book like The Martian?

Surprise would have triumphed, but at the cost of “happily ever after.”

It’s not always a bad thing when a book ends predictably.  Just because we know how something is going to end doesn’t always make it less enjoyable. Chick flicks are highly predictable, but people watch them anyway, and every time you reread a book you already know what’s going to happen.

So here’s my question: what’s the perfect balance between surprise and predictability in a book? Does it even matter at all? And how would you have reacted if Mark Watney had died at the end of “The Martian?”

 

If you liked this post you might also like Who Would Win In a Dance-Off: Mark Watney or Willy Wonka? and Bilbo Baggins in Rapunzel’s Tower (And Other Rapunzel Character Swaps).

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56 thoughts on “Heroes Don’t Die. But What If They Did?

  1. I love this. As an author myself I constantly have to consider what will surprise my readers (and myself) but still keep them invested. There is a reason chick flicks are popular, and that most stories follow the same pattern and that’s what an audience (myself included) wants. I may know the ending but it’s how the characters got there that keeps me as a reader interested. Also, if Watney died it wouldn’t have been the same story. I rooted through the entire story and then the movie and each time was excited when he got off Mars.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly! It’s interesting because writers of both words and music often write within given forms. But it’s how you work within the form that makes a book successful or appealing, like you said! Maybe readers need enough familiarity to keep from overloading their brain but enough difference and surprise to make it worth reading the new thing.

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  2. To be honest, I thought him surviving was a bit of a let down. It was very Hollywood. And lo and behold, it became a Hollywood movie.

    I grew up on a steady dose of Russian literature and European film. In Hollywood movies (and most genre books) the certainty that the hero won’t die – can’t die – kinda cheapens the suspense and the stakes. I can only think of maybe one major YA dystopian book that bucked this trend in the last decade, and it was written from that characters point of view too!) Then again, when I go in to see the latest action thriller or read the latest urban fantasy, I know I don’t have to really worry. It’ll be action adventure fluff without the stress. It’ll be a HEA or at least a HFN.

    Aside: the movie Everest came out at the exact same time The Everest. It’s a great contrast to The Martian. In a sense, in western books nonfiction often packs a whole lot more punch, cuz in real life, people don’t always succeed.

    Aside2: have you read the kite runner? That was an ending that sorely disappointed me…

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    • Hmm, lots of good points here. I know what you mean about being let down when a movie or book gives the classic Hollywood ending. I find myself constantly looking for books that will go outside of the stereotypes. But then, maybe it’s our expectations that make it feel cheap. If we go into a story knowing it’s going to follow a particular arc and the hero is going to survive, does it become the equivalent of one of those action thrillers? Still enjoyable, but only for when you’re looking for a particular experience? I haven’t seen Everest but that does sound like a good contrast to The Martian. And I haven’t read The Kite Runner, either!

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      • Hmmm…I think romances are an example where that expectation of a Happily Ever After is a requirement and a big reason people read in the genre (me included). When I’m in a romance-reading mood or need some chick-lit, I want some humor, I want some ridiculous drama, and I want romance ending with a happy ending. A writer who tries to wow me by killing off a character or ending on a tragedy would just piss me off (and disqualify their book from the romance genre anyway).

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      • Yeah, though I guess there’s Romeo and Juliet for some romantic tragedy… But definitely in the modern romance genre, a happily ever after is pretty much a must have.

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  3. Good questions to think about when writing a story. I didn’t read the book, but I saw the movie. I guess I like the heroes to live on, so I would be sad if the hero dies.

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  4. I believe the best endings (in this case the death of main characters) are the ones that are not forced. An author should let the natural flow of the story end on its own rhythm. Not forced or created to appease the emotions of the reader. Strangely, I’ve found by doing this you actually create a more enjoyable, unique experience for the reader.

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  5. Pingback: Heroes Don’t Die. But What If They Did? — If Mermaids Wore Suspenders – Skylar Dietsche

  6. One thing I really appreciate about George RR Martin is his willingness to kill off beloved characters in the middle of a book and then to show the aftermath. I think that packs a much more powerful emotional punch than a death at the end.

    In this case, though, I think Watney’s death would have been devastating. His death wouldn’t have been just the tragedy of the loss of life, it would have been the failure of a whole team of astronauts and scientists working to bring him home. Collective failure isn’t bittersweet, it’s just depressing.

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  7. I’ve thought about this a lot. I actually kind of like it when the hero dies in the end. I know it’s not a happily ever after, but it feels more like the hero is leaving a legacy of some sort in the book. Otherwise I’m like, “why did I read this?” One book I can think of right away is the book “Into The Wild.” Of course, from the very beginning you know he’s going to die because it’s based on a true story and the author even flat out says it in the first chapter. But I remember reading it in high school and it was definitely not a popular book in my English class. People ended up hating the character, calling him arrogant and an ungrateful, rich kid who needed survival lessons. But if he had lived, I’m sure they would have all said something different.

    I read “The Martian” and I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I love a good sci-fi that isn’t too sci-fi-ey, and I thought that was perfectly balanced in Andy Weir’s book. But I also thought about how predictable it was that he lived. Since it was a stand-alone book, it was obvious he would survive and the book would be a bestseller because of that. I think it would have been devastating for him to have failed the mission at the end, but it was also very “fairy-tale” for him to have survived. The author is in the worst position to have to choose.

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    • Agreed. It’s hard, because you can’t have both endings but each potential ending adds something else to the story. That’s interesting about heroes leaving a legacy when they die. I feel the same way! And a lot of the time I want the book to end realistically, which often means the main character’s not going to make it out alive or achieve their “happily ever after.” I think I look for and appreciate different types of endings in books depending on what I’m going through in my own life. It’s like the value of the book is not objective. What do you think?

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      • Definitely. I think I look for certain things in the books that I read depending on my own life and what I need at that time. Sometimes that means I look for the happy endings, and generally those are easy to find just from looking at the cover of a book. Sometimes I need a good cry or to make myself depressed, so I’ll reach for the Harry Potter, or something to that effect. I do get offended when people hate on a book for the author killing off the protagonist, but I know that I do that too. How we should judge books shouldn’t be how we reacted to whatever happens in it, but perhaps there’s a deeper message behind it that we can take value from. It certainly is not objective, just as any art form isn’t. The phrase “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” has never been more true.

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      • Well said. Books really are an art form! There’s one book in particular, I Capture the Castle, that I read many years ago and really connected with. I’ve been wanting to reread it, but I wonder if now that my mindset has changed it won’t mean as much to me. It’s amazing how subjective reading is, both as a result of different people’s perspectives and as a result of one person’s perspective changing over time.

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      • That’s why I love reading so much. We continue to grow and move on, but the stories we love remain fixed in time forever. I have so many books that I’ve read and been afraid to read again now that I’m older and have changed so much. But I also know that I can go back to it whenever and maybe be reminded of who I was and why I loved it so much. It’s like a time capsule of my youth.

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  8. Nicholas Sparks is notorious for killing off main characters. I read 4 books in a row were the main character died at the end. I didn’t mind ‘A Walk To Remember’ because you knew the girl was going to die and you could prepare yourself, but I was mad after I finished reading ‘The Best Of Me’ and ‘Message In A Bottle’. I haven’t read one of his books since. Of course, I guess he could be applauded for evoking such emotion from me.

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    • I don’t think I’ve read any Nicholas Sparks books, but I’ve caught onto that from movie trailers haha. It’s interesting, though, because I guess it would then be a surprise if he DIDN’T kill off a main character–twist!

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  9. Although it’s that great of a book, I would recommend My Sister’s Keeper for this phenomenon. Let me tell you; I didn’t particularly love the book (it was completely fine, but not much more), but the ending really messed with me.
    But let’s be honest…I kind of love when the couple gets together, and they all live happily after, so I never really complain when they live!

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