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There are many science fiction/fantasy TV series where several/many main characters are killed (A Game of Thrones, Firefly / Serenity, Earth: Final Conflict, Robin Hood, even back in Blake's 7 days). It seems like this is more common than in other genre.

Do more main characters die in science-fiction/fantasy TV shows than in other genre?

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    To be clear, I'm after real numbers - i.e. some sort of study done that looks at the X most popular TV shows and uses statistical analysis to compare the number of main character deaths between shows considered scifi/fantasy and those not. An answer limited to the US is ok, but wider would be great. – Tony Meyer Feb 28 '12 at 8:22
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    Probably horror beats all other genres? But in terms of non-main characters, sci-fi must win, because it's got the big guns. – Wikis Feb 28 '12 at 8:59
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    Only if they're wearing a red shirt ;-) – Rob Feb 28 '12 at 11:13
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    If you want hard numbers, what's your hard definition of "main character?" ;) – Chris Lutz Mar 15 '12 at 21:41
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    I posit that long-running soap operas contain the most main-character deaths, as their characters eventually die of old age and/or sudden yet inevitable betrayal, only to be replaced by a new generation that will eventually grow old & die, and so forth. – jwodder Mar 15 '12 at 22:25
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I'm afraid I can't offer you a study, but I can offer two plausible explanations for the phenomenon on TV.

Killing off main characters is a risky business in TV drama. Audiences stay faithful because they identify with particular characters, and generally death scenes put them off and may cause them to stop watching. This is actually a shame because (a) new character dynamics extend the life of the show and (b) death makes for great drama.

The way in which killing off a character in Speculative Fiction differs from mainstream fiction is that it's actually not that much of a barrier to their return. In mainstream fiction, dead is dead, and there are no get out clauses. Pretty much the only way you can bring a dead character back is in flashback. With SF, they can be ghosts, resurrected by McGuffins, time travellers, or any of hundreds of other fantastic possibilities. Killing off main characters is therefore lower risk in SF than in other genres, in that, if the ratings take a hit, they can be brought back. Even if this is the writer's intention before their demise, it can be used to create buzz for the show. Examples of this are Buffy in Buffy, and Starbuck in new Battlestar Galactica.

The second reason is that, possibly because of the first reason, it has become more acceptable for this to happen in SF. I mostly lay this at the door of Joss Whedon, who has never been afraid to kill off a character if it was dramatically appropriate (although he may have sometimes been more keen to bring them back than perhaps I'd like). Possibly the best ever use of this technique was (spoilers for Angel)

Doyle, who was established as a Main Character for a full half season before dying in a thoroughly shocking moment of self-sacrifice.

I'd argue that the emotional power of this particular death created an environment in which TV executives understood that fans and viewers could appreciate the higher stakes drama of losing a main character. It's not that this wouldn't work just as well in mainstream drama, merely that there hasn't been a high profile enough show that's taken a similar risk in such a massively successful way. Studio executives are a pretty conservative bunch, and the power of having an example to point to and say "look how much this increased ratings" is not to be underestimated.

  • While this is a nice answer, it doesn't answer the question of whether or not the supposition is true; it explains what the possible reasons might be if it were true. – Tony Meyer Mar 17 '12 at 1:40
  • If it's helpful and/or interesting a downvote seems a little harsh, especially given the fact no-one seems to be able to answer the question you actually asked. I did consider not posting for this very reason, but decided there was some value to the answer I gave that meant it was worth risking the downvote. – Christi Mar 17 '12 at 11:12
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Scifi/fantasy shows have always been slightly different from other shows. They have a specific audience, more of a cult, watching them. The shows themselves then push the limits by taking the necessary risks of presenting cliffhanger with character deaths to get more audience, and to keep old fans watching. In essence, they can afford to kill off characters without paying for it, because the fans stay true to the show no matter what happens.

Unlike scifi/fantasy shows, other show fans stay true to a specific set of characters that sometimes last until the end of the series. These shows also have simpler plots, so they are easier to follow.

Scifi/fantasy shows, more often than not, get canceled because of plot or character death/changes. We are used to seeing characters die only to be brought back to life again, sometimes during the same episode.

There are cases in drama shows, like the medical drama show Grey's Anatomy, where during the same episode, one main character dies while another main character is about to die, but heals and leaves the show.

So in other genres like drama, it's also common to kill characters and replace them with new ones.

In Sitcoms, main characters rarely die (because the show is about them), but it happens. For example, Charlie Harper on Two and a Half Men(whatever the reason). There are many other cases like 8 Simple Rules, etc.

Characters of scifi/fantasy shows also die more often because many of them are based on a written story (a book or a play).

For example, A Game of Thrones follows a series of books called The Song Of Ice And Fire in which character die regularly being replaced by new ones.

The shows that don't follow a book, have more complicated plots and are based on hostile environments, leading in the death of their characters. It also gives the show an edge which attracts new audiences.

Probably, one of the main reasons that scifi/fantasy shows can afford to kill their characters, is because they can bring them back to life by some means or power, unlike other shows where a character dies and cannot be brought to life.

During the scifi show Battlestar Galactica, each Cylon character dies multiple times in each season. How many times does one character die?

(please spare me the comments about Cylon death explanation)

  • Why do sci-fi/fantasy books have to contain excessive character deaths? Why can't non-sci-fi/fantasy shows have complicated plots in hostile environments that lead to character deaths? Your "answer" doesn't really answer anything. – jwodder Mar 15 '12 at 22:01
  • @jwodder Well, we are here to talk about scifi/fantasy so that's what I did. Besides, the question is 'Are characters in scifi/fantasy TV shows more likely to die?' However, if it will make you feel better I'll change my answer. – Eve Mar 15 '12 at 22:53
  • The text of the question (as in, beyond the title) makes it clear that it's about whether characters in sci-fi/fantasy are more likely to die than characters in other genres, so a comparison to those genres is necessary. – jwodder Mar 15 '12 at 23:02
  • @jwodder I've edited my answer to better suit your suggestion. – Eve Mar 16 '12 at 1:00
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    While this is a nice answer, it doesn't answer the question of whether or not the supposition is true; it explains what the possible reasons might be if it were true. – Tony Meyer Mar 17 '12 at 1:40

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