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I am writing a fantasy novel in which I want the main character to die right around the middle of the book, only to resurface later with unexpected powers that apparently kept her alive -- something which should come across as a shock. I realize that bringing a character back so easily like this can take a lot of the emotional weight off of the many other, real deaths that happen in the story, and I don't want any of them to feel less of a hit because there is the possibility that the character might just pop back up alive.

There is a rather heartbreaking (real, irreversible) death at the end of the story that comes across as a huge shock, just like the MC's death midway through. But the first thing I thought when reading it back was "well, who says this character doesn't have the unexpected powers too, can't they just come back?"

This is a problem faced by comic books and extended universes where beloved characters die off, only to be "reborn" or rebooted because they are so loved. This devalues every single time a character dies because you know they'll probably be back.

How do I avoid this and make this one fake death clearly the only fake death and/or treat the real deaths differently so that they hit harder?

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    This is so common that in the Marvel Universe RPG, the villains can use karma points to buy a "mysterious death." They die but leave no body, the body vanishes without explanation, or the body is discovered to be a robot, imposter, etc.
    – DWKraus
    Jul 18, 2022 at 13:44

5 Answers 5

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The biggest issue is maintaining the permanence of death.

Audiences are smart. They've seen the same tropes a hundred billion times, so if you tell them their favorite character is dead, they won't buy it until you give them proof. If you want me to believe your character is dead, show me the remains.

No body==They're probably alive.

Death is supposed to be permanent, so by introducing the idea that your characters can miraculously come back breaks the sense of realism, but the real problem is this. If one guy can come back to life, why can't the other guy?

What are the rules of your universe regarding death? Are there gods in this universe? Wish-granting spells? An afterlife? Necromancers? Advanced medical technology? Etc?

If yes to any of these, then death is not permanent.

But if these things exist, why did one person revive and the other not? There needs to be some sort of limitation on these things or else the death feels cheap.

For example, there's only one stone of Miraculous Revival. Unfortunately, the protagonist needed it to beat the big bad, so they can't heal their friend.

Necromancy might exist but the rule is it needs an equal exchange, a life for a life. The heroes aren't willing to use such a method to revive their friends, so they refuse to use it.

Regardless of the rules, never break them for arbitrary reasons. Welp, the Revival stone had two charges, but, oh no, it won't work because of plot reasons.

Lastly, if the answer to the question is no, there are no miraculous revival methods, just give a logical throughline for how one character got out of the situation and the other did not.

Ex. The building collapsed but the MC was not in it. They used blood bags to fake the wound. They used illusion magic or holograms. Just make sure to build it up beforehand or explain it well afterward.

Then, for the real death, make it clear the characters had nothing up their sleeves this time. Honestly, it would be heartbreaking if one of the characters was convinced this was a fakeout like the last time.

Allison: "I'm sorry, Charlie's gone."

Damon: "Stop messing around, Allie. I can see through your illusions. It was just a trick to distract the demon lord, but I'm too smart for that little kid magic."

Berry: "It's not a joke. An illusion would've faded the second we lost concentration. Feel his pulse. There's nothing there."

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I think you have to set things up in a way that in hindsight (with the reader knowing what everything means) it could have been known/suspected the MC would survive/come back from the death. And that whatever allows that prediction shouldn't hold for anyone else.

For example, maybe the "chosen one" has a distinctive birthmark. We don't learn what it means until after she come back, so the resurrection/survival is a surprise. But once we do know what it means, we also know that no one else has that same mark, so the same miraculous survival cannot apply to them.

It can obviously be something else than a birthmark. It could be a magic item, a prophecy, lineage, etc. But whatever the reason for her survival is, after she comes back it needs to explain why her, and why not someone else in the future.

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It's one thing for it to be a shock, it's another for it to be a deus ex machina. There has to be enough foreshadowing for the reader to be able to see it wasn't just something you, the writer, pulled out of a hat.

Then, put the readers' reactions into the story. Have the characters disbelieve the resurrection. Have them express anger and grief that only this character gets the marvelous survival. Heck, have them express anger that they were grief-stricken over this death only for it to turn out to be unreal. Have them hope for others but realize there is a good reason why only this character got it. Because the readers' reactions would also, realistically, be the characters'.

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Rather than trying to ignore the potential "cheapening" of the first death (Character A) lampshade (TV Tropes warning!) it - you can have the other characters initially sceptical of finality of the death of Character B making it all the more painful for them when, yes, it turns out to be final.

You can parlay that into the five stages of grief using A's resurrection as a lynchpin:

  • Denial - B can't really be permanently dead, after all A came back
  • Anger - Why is B permanently dead but A got to come back? It's so unfair!
  • Bargaining - There has to be something that can be done, A came back so there * must be a way for B! What's it going to take to make it happen?
  • Depression - It's so unfair. The world is a cruel and senseless place.
  • Acceptance - B's really gone, look for a way forward

By playing this process out through the characters you can lead the reader through the same process and rather than how they're considering the death being dissonant with the story it will match it instead. Additionally you get some great opportunities for inter-character conflict and character development into the bargain!

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...I want the main character to die right around the middle of the book, only to resurface later with unexpected powers that apparently kept her alive...

This might be one of those plot points that seem unnesessary or capable of ruining the whole story for the reader BUT THAT'S WHERE YOU COME IN!

The power of subversion is one of many tools in a writer's repertoire. The death of a character is sad, but wouldn't it be tragic if the deceased character "came back to life" but they have changed as a consequence of a power or simply due to the passage of time?

In my honest opinion the death of a character is sad, but the return of a beloved character that has changed and doesn't resemble the character they once was is a tragedy.

This is just one of many examples you can come up with! You can do anything at this point, you simply have to be mix a blend of care and creativity to make it work!

As long as you complement this plot point with foreshadowing and exploration of the idea that the price of ressurection is too much to bargain for, you'll be GOLDEN.

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