When bad things happen to good characters

There was a thing that happened on a television show this weekend. No, I'm not going into specific detail (though, really, how you can cry spoilers when the book that the show is based on was published 13 years ago is a thing I do not undertand, and also, Romeo and Juliet die at the end), but yes, I am talking about Game of Thrones, and yes, people died in a violent and perhaps unexpected and unfair manner.

The reactions to this event, both those of the "OMFG what just happened?! GRRM is a murderous rat bastard!!1!" and the "what does this mean about the craft of fiction" were very interesting to me, especially as someone who bounced off the second book in the series twice and has never seen the show, and so had no emotional involvement in any of the specific characters affected.

To understand why bad things happen in fiction, we first have to understand the idea of stakes. No, not the vampire-slaying kind. But the idea that if there is no possibility that something can go wrong, it won't matter when something goes right. Now, the something that can go wrong doesn't need to be violent death. It can be the threat of being grounded for sneaking out of the house, or a souffle that falls at a key dinner, or the circumstances that thwart true love. But at some point, there needs to be the very real chance that your characters don't get what they want. They need to have something at risk, and it needs to be something that matters.

I point this out because often when a writer talks about doing something bad to her characters (sometimes killing them), the response is, well why did you do it, then? You're the writer, just don't write the scene. Even Martin, in this interview (don't click the link if you don't want to be spoiled on the specifics of a scene that was published 13 years ago) has said it was the hardest scene he ever had to write, that he loved those characters too. But if the characters we love are immune from potential consequences, then those story-lines have no (or lesser) stakes. 

There is also the idea of whether or not the consequences are earned in the world of the story - are the stakes appropriate? Does the bad thing that happened to the character resonate? The death of the character, the frustration of their desires, has to matter. It has to serve the story.

In the same interview linked in the above paragraph, Martin talks about how part of the reason he does kill off the characters he does, is to subvert the expectations of the reader. Stories often follow patterns - we know, for example, if what we're reading is a romance, or a revenge tragedy. So he kills characters to break that pattern. Which, I actually think is an earned consequence. Subverting the expectation of the reader, telling them that they are not in the kind of story that they think they are can be a very powerful storytelling technique.

What I wonder is, is what happens when the subversions become their own expectations? I mean, the snark is out there - GRRM can't use twitter because he's killed all 140 characters. Joss Whedon will find the character you love best, and kill them  for sport. So it's not that readers (or viewers) know the story pattern, and are surprised when it is subverted, but that they know a particular writer's story pattern, and the subversion travels full circle to become the expected.

Again in the above-linked interview, Martin says that when a character is killed, the reader should grieve, should care. And we should - the writer should grieve her character, the reader grieve the loss. And this is where we are back to stakes. If we never worry that something bad can happen to a character, we will never worry on their behalf, no matter what kind of physical or emotional jeopardy it seems they are in. We stop caring, because we know everything will be fine. The flip side of that is, of course, that if bad things happen all the time, and to all the characters, we become numb, we become immune to the grief and the loss, because we never risked getting attached in the first place.