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If you've seen Avengers: Infinity War, you'll recall the line "No resurrections this time" being said in the scene just after the first (arguably second) on-screen death of a main character at the hands (literally) of the antagonist.

My question revolves around the theme of resurrections.

Many successful books (and movies/comics) have had main characters killed off, only to be resurrected later on in the series.

They can be quite effective if they're implemented correctly (such as those of Loki in the MCU), but can also be seen as lazy writing and just as ways for the writer to prolong their story if they're not used correctly.

As resurrections have been carried out to varying levels of success, and as my book contains a few resurrections (/this-character-never-died moments) I was wondering ... what makes a successful resurrection?

How can a writer successfully write a resurrection which is effective and isn't seen as a cheap way out?

Note: If possible, please can answers include advice regarding multiple resurrections of the same main character? (If this is classed as too-broad or should be put in a different question, I'll edit this bit out and do as suggested)

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    re multiple resurrections of Loki in particular: His death at the end of The Dark World was written in the script and played by both Hiddleston and Hemsworth as permanent. In test screenings, audiences absolutely refused to believe that Loki was really dead, and insisted he had some trick up his sleeve. Marvel added reshoots to reflect that he had in fact lived. So one possible tip is "write a character who is such a trickster that the reader would actually have a hard time believing his/her demise." – Lauren Ipsum Jun 10 '18 at 17:14
  • @LaurenIpsum Thanks! But, isn't that a definite spoiler? ;) – Adi219 Jun 10 '18 at 18:04
  • Only if you believe that "revealing anything about any movie" counts as a spoiler. :) Although to be fair, I was tweaked about spoiling the Trojan War on this site, so... (The "multiple" I am referring to is at the end of Thor, when Loki lets go of Gungnir and falls into the void only to show up later in The Avengers, and TDW. I have no knowledge of Avengers 4 nor would I spoil it if I did.) – Lauren Ipsum Jun 10 '18 at 18:26
  • Resurrection is always going to piss some people off, even in real life: aljazeera.com/programmes/listeningpost/2018/06/… – De Novo Jun 11 '18 at 23:34
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In writing a resurrection, you need to balance several conflicting ideas: on the one hand, the death of the character should be a possibility. Otherwise, this death is cheap, meaningless. "He died, so what? He's going to come back." The last thing you want to evoke with a character's death is boredom.

On the other hand, the resurrection should be believable. It should make sense within the rules of your word. It should not be a Deus ex Machina.

And on the third hand (because two are never enough), the resurrection must not devalue the original death. If a character gave up their life for something, but later got their life back, then what have they given up? This was, for example, the main criticism against Star Trek: The Search for Spock: his dramatic death in The Wrath of Khan was devalued by his return.

So how do you balance those elements? I will present here some examples. Those are by no means the only options, but they should give you some ideas regarding what works, and why it does.

  • You can play off the Jesus angle: a character gives up their life, and then they are resurrected stronger, save the day, and spiritual something. Gandalf is a well-known character who gets this treatment. First, he is, of course, a Maia - an angelic being, thus while we might plausibly believe him dead, it is not impossible within the rules of the world for Gandalf to come back. Gandalf lays down his life fighting the Balrog, and that is a catastrophe - the Fellowship is rudderless, things are going wrong. Then, Behold! Gandalf comes back, it is an eucatastrophe - Gandalf's return is the turning point of the LotR. From then n, there are hardships, but things move towards victory.
  • Your character might be a skilled trickster or planner - someone for whom it would be plausible to simulate his own death and evade it. Loki is one such example. For such a character, as others point out, it would in fact be less plausible to die than to survive. Nonetheless, the shadow of doubt should be there for the reader, as well as the curiosity of how he evaded death, and when he's going to reappear.
  • You can create a world where death is cheap. The Order of the Stick, a comics set in a D&D world, works under the premise that characters can be resurrected, multiple times, as per D&D rules. This is used for multiple jokes. But when an MC actually dies, there's a whole plotline of the other characters trying to get the resources to get their friend resurrected, and a parallel plotline of what the MC is doing in the afterlife in the meantime. Because death is understood not to be final, drama must be derived from other sources.

All those examples, attack the aforementioned elements in different ways: if death is understood not to be final, it is not very dramatic, and so drama must come from other places. For your particular case, since you are going to have many resurrections, it is unlikely that the readers would continue to treat death in your novel as something that might stick. You'd have to provide other stakes - something that would stick.

As for a "cheap way out", the story of death and resurrection would have to have more in it than "I need the character out of the way" and "now I need him back". In some way, the whole experience would have to be meaningful. In the aforementioned Order of the Stick example, the one where death is cheapest, the MC is affected by the people he meets in the afterlife, while his team is affected by having to do things without him. The whole thing is thus an important part of the story. For Loki, the multiple death-evasions build up his persona as a trickster-god. Note that he is implied to have "somehow" evaded death, rather than having been dead. And Gandalf, of course, is a Jesus-figure.

  • Excellent answer! But I'd add one thought, if I might: even in such a universe as the Order of the Stick, death can be final. If you have no friends, or no friends with the right abilities, your death will be very much final. – Sara Costa Jun 12 '18 at 7:02
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Good resurrections need an element of doubt to exist beforehand. For example if you leave a character apparently pinned down some time before a building goes up there's a lot more room for their resurrection than if the last time you showed them was strapped to the bomb as it went off. So doubt, or at least wiggle room, is vital to resurrecting characters well and believably. Bringing back a character that you've left room for the resurrection of is harder to do well, I'm sorry but I've never tried it and don't have any good examples for you, the only cases I can think of right now are from the Night's Dawn Trilogy and weren't handled well at all.

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To me a good resurrection is a good plot twist, meaning the reader could go back and re-read what went before, and see it in a new light and realize the clues for the resurrection were there, they just missed them.

Perhaps the best executed twist I've seen was in The Sixth Sense. I immediately watched the movie again, without skipping or fast forwarding, to see if it had cheated. Nope! The opposite, even more clues than I would have considered necessary were present, but so cleverly placed with other distractions I completely missed them.

A good resurrection cannot be a cheat. Your clues don't have to be blatant, but they need to be there. You can hide them "in the light", i.e. have the clue be a throwaway event or conversation that is lost in the glare of a more dramatic event. So you intentionally make your character say things or do things that seems innocuous, but are not; they are the clues, but put these moments in places where the reader is already anticipating something else, and this doesn't fit so it gets ignored. Or put them a page or two before an "explosion:" A fight scene, a sex scene, some other memorable moment so the glare of that encourages the reader to forget the quiet clue that came just before it.

Separately, you can also foreshadow resurrection. That can be explicit: Your hero kills somebody in battle he was certain was dead, but no explanation is given. Or meets somebody he had heard was dead (Samuel Clemens; "The news of my demise has been greatly exaggerated!")

Or foreshadowing can be indirect: The resurrectee figuratively resurrects something else, a love relationship, a cell phone she thought he ruined by dropping it in dishwater, a "dead" car. Or she experiences a resurrection, visiting a school/college reunion and resurrecting an old friendship that had ended in acrimony over a boy they both now hate (eg. she blamed her friend when she should have blamed her boyfriend). (and refers to it as such).

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Personally I dislike resurrections in books. They are often meant to bring back a popular character without a reason. Many did it and there is always a kind of aftertaste. Even if the character is bound to rules or something like that, there is the problem with plausibility.

Every kind of resurrection seems to be a Deus Ex Machina in my eyes. Either it helps the character to fight the most recklessly battles, or to change the outcome of some things (depending on the "resurrection"). As mentioned from Galastel before, there are several approaches in which cases the ressurection might work, like Gandalf from Lord of the Rings. If your dead character is a higher being, there is a good chance, that it would be resurrected. But normally a death should be final. You play with the readers feelings in that case.

Without Gandalf, I have never seen or read a statisfying resurrection before. It allways seems like an Deus Ex Machina, without any reason.

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Some great answers here, especially the one from @Galastel.

My additional advice: a resurrected character should be substantially and irreversibly changed. This change can be positive (Jesus, Gandalf), or negative (Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones resurrections), or a maybe a little of both (undead). If death remains a process with some weight and impact, it can retain some of its narrative and dramatic value. If it's simply a reversal, the arrow of time has lost its direction and nothing in your story matters anymore.

You can also use the common tool of making the resurrection costly or difficult (a death for a life, a rescue from hades).

  • Touché! Personally, I prefer to see the negative changes. – Sara Costa Jun 12 '18 at 7:07
  • @SaraCosta Why not just change the respawn time from 3 days to 10 years, even with accelerated growth? – Mephistopheles Jul 4 '18 at 8:19
  • @Mephistopheles: while it isn't a negative change, it certainly is a negative consequence. And I still prefer to see negative consequences, changes or not, when ressurrection is involved. – Sara Costa Jul 4 '18 at 9:14

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