Should Characters Stay Dead?

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  ResThis post was inspired by the title of a blog post by my friend and fellow Unbounder, Paul Holbrook. Now, Paul was being much more serious when he asked Should the Dead Stay Dead? I highly recommend reading and following his blog.

Although a different topic, Paul's title got me to thinking about all those stories where dead characters come back to life. In most cases, I want dead characters to stay dead. There are very few stories where characters have been brought back that I have found satisfying so I started trying to figure out why that is.

Tone

For me, this has a major effect on whether I can accept characters coming back to life or not and it can work in different ways. If the tone is light-hearted and suggests that the text is not to be taken too seriously then I am much more likely to accept characters returning from the dead.

In a show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example, the tone indicates that we are in for some fun. We are given ridiculous fight-scenes and witty quips, and while some of the story lines carry more weight (especially over the years as the show matured) we generally expect our main characters to survive. Not only to survive but to live happily-ever-after. So, when a major character dies but is returned to life, we are not entirely surprised or disappointed. We get the resolution that we've been promised by the tone of the writing.

The other tone that can make this work is  horror. This can be the horror of an enemy that just won't stay dead, that will always return to be fought again , as with the nighthawks in Raymond E Feist's Riftwar books. It can be the horror of what happens when something does return from the dead - the wrongness of what is returned - as in Pet Sematary by Stephen King. Or, it can even be the horror of the protagonist never staying dead. The pain of being brought back again and again, unable to find the release of death.

Stakes

I think the biggest reason that I so rarely appreciate stories where characters come back to life is what this means for the stakes.

If characters can be resurrected then the ultimate stakes, life and death, no longer hold meaning. In the face of that, it can be difficult to worry about a character. We can lose the sense that actions have consequences. I think that in order to have characters return from the dead and still have the stakes remain high, the character must be changed by the experience. A great example of this is Lady Stoneheart in A Song of Ice and Fire. The character is so far removed from her nature before death that it is almost as if she is a new character.

Resurrecting characters successfully is a difficult task and I think that any writer considering doing this needs to carefully consider the reasons for doing so.

What do you think? Do you have some examples of where this has been handled well? I'd love to hear your thoughts!