Spoiler Alert: Although I don’t intend to go into a great deal of depth about the precise plot points and ways in which characters from The 100 and The Walking Dead died recently, there will be some spoilers. So anyone who wants to not have the latest seasons of these shows ruined for them should turn around and go the other way now! Otherwise tune in for a discussion about the ways you should think about presenting and using the deaths of minor characters to further the plot – especially if being dead is really the way to go about things.
Depending on what shows you like to watch on TV recently, you might be familiar with a recent controversy surrounding the deaths of two characters in The 100 and The Walking Dead. Both of these occurred quite recently and involve the deaths of a minor character, who also happens to be a minority group. In these cases, two lesbian characters who were in steady, stable looking relationships were suddenly and dramatically killed off in their respective shows. Now, I’m not particularly interested in going over all the precise details of why they were killed and how, but the result for The 100 was a considerable backlash against the shows from LGBTQIA fans. Similarly, The Walking Dead met with an equal storm of criticism over the decision and the actress in question even responded with how she felt about things.
So if you want precise details of how they died and why within the context of the shows, please see either link above for more of an explanation. What I’m interested in is why their deaths were so poorly received by fans of the respective shows. It turns out that despite being a relative minority in terms of on-screen characters being a lesbian or bisexual, especially one in a relationship, is incredibly hazardous to your health. The incredibly high death toll, getting to around 146 characters*, seems quite shocking but has a sadly simple explanation: Most minority characters are just that, minor side characters. Given that most TV, movies and similar are written generally by straight, heterosexual men, it’s easy for them to overlook how this feels to a LGBTQIA audience with a different perspective when they are killed off.
Both fortunately and unfortunately, these characters deaths are often not out of some sort of homophobia or any particular malice against the LGBTQIA audience. In both cases where producers or the actresses behind The 100 or The Walking Dead responded, there is a definite easily justified excuse running underneath: They weren’t major characters, so their actresses weren’t contracted for very long or had other obligations. Minor characters always have the most treacherous shelf life in a post-Game of Thrones TV world, because as a writer they’re who you feel are most disposable at any particular junction. Shows like the Walking Dead can and will kill off their major characters, but someone like Rick Grimes has a degree of plot armor that a newly introduced minor character won’t. Once again, returning to the point most writers are straight, heterosexual men, means that many major characters will be closer to them also.
So we end up with a problem where killing characters at random in brutal ways, usually for maximum shock value – thank you Game of Thrones for that -, is rather en vogue right now, which is why we end up here. Being a minor side character is pretty much like being a redshirt, except you get a defined name and a few more episodes before meeting a grisly end**. Combine this with most of the main minority characters also being put into these side roles generally, but not being a part of the main plot armored cast, you can quickly see why this trope comes up so often. It doesn’t just affect LGBTQIA characters as well, because we should also take a moment to remember the old horror chestnut of “The Black Guy dies first”, which has a similar origin.
Other than general death sometimes this particular “Bury your Gays” trope often has highly offensive results, such as female bisexual character in a love triangle with a woman and a straight man, who find their lesbian interest die for the straight male to come through as their defacto relationship. Understandably, this kind of reason for killing off lesbian or bisexual characters is deeply upsetting for members of the LGBTQIA community, who view it as reinforcing heterosexual relationships as the only normal or acceptable conclusions for a character’s arc. Once again, I’m not saying that the people writing these things are being deliberately homophobic or trying to say anything like this, but the way it comes off to those affected is what matters.
So what is the solution to this issue? Well the first and most obvious one, is to have more minority characters as main or principle cast members. Sure this isn’t 100% protection, as both Game of Thrones and the Walking Dead happily murder even their major cast sometimes, but it does mean they might persist longer through the series. Likewise, it might be a good idea to consider how minorities are represented on the show and if killing them off every time you need to reach into the “Who to murder” plot advancement hat is a wise idea. It should be noted that The 100 and The Walking Dead are especially brutal, post-apocalyptic worlds, but the fact they are dealing with minority characters doesn’t change. Especially because non-apocalyptic shows also frequently engage in this trope and largely for the same reasons I described above – hence why it is such a problem.
Even my own roleplaying games have not been immune from these tropes as well, with both my Star Wars and Trail of Cthulhu campaigns accidentally falling into these traps. In both cases I had written prominent bisexual or homosexual NPCs into the plot, but had also decided their deaths would have been core plot points later on. Now in my defense, I have a diverse selection of players and many of my players PCs are usually non-straight or minorities, so my “main cast” is fairly diverse. On the other hand, that doesn’t excuse my own writing of disposable homosexual or other characters, especially now that I am quite conscious of the fact just how ridiculously often these characters die. The question is, could I do something else that might result in a similar amount of dramatic tension but did *not* kill these characters off?
Like many things in roleplaying, there are a lot of alternative storytelling choices you can make instead of outright character death. The good old fashioned “Captured by cultists” is always a good one to go for here, which advances the plot, gives motivation for revenge if that is what you wanted and allows the player/NPC to retrieve their love interest. Alternatively, perhaps those scenes where the character could die may give the players a chance to avert disaster through conversation, recognizing the danger or similar. You could even invert tropes in your game, consciously choosing to remove the straight character from the typical gay/bisexual/straight love triangle some shows establish.
Most importantly remember that while many NPCs you create are disposable pawns, which your players don’t need to interact with more than a handful of times or even more than once – their fates can matter. If every lesbian NPC you create dies, you might not realize you’ve done anything offensive, but someone who is LGBTQIA is certainly going to notice how you treated those characters. This again comes back to having a diverse cast, with many different goals, fates and positions as antagonists/allies/questgivers to your players. If every lesbian in your game dies, your players might definitely notice or even take offense, but if you give your minority characters a wide array of different fates – including the happy endings they are so often denied – it won’t be offensive whatsoever.
*Again bear in mind, we’re talking about a minority of characters on TV to begin with. So that’s a much more impressive number than it may initially seem. It also only accounts for reoccurring characters, rather than one offs in various episodes and similar.
**Usually for the development of a member of the main cast, who tend to be straight or non-minority characters themselves. This doesn’t help matters.