The genre-savvy reader knows that if no-one found the body, the character is probably coming back. This has become a staple to the point a writer might have a very hard time convincing the readers that the character with the missing body is indeed dead.
The nice thing about this trick is that the surviving characters believe their friend is dead, but the reader knows differently. It’s a good way to trick the characters but not the audience.
And then, there are the other characters, the ones who survived something no one should have survived. Maybe the body wasn’t found, but the guy had been cut in half and fallen off a cliff, or the body was found and there was an open casket funeral before the character was buried. Somehow, they came back from the dead. Depending on the genre, they may have actually been dead and brought back with magic, or maybe everyone was just fooled.
What is wrong with this? It doesn’t seem to be an issue at first, since some authors like tricking readers, but the trick has a cost. After a bunch of characters come back from the dead, the reader stops caring about the character being in peril. If they’ve already come back from the dead multiple times, what’s one more? Even worse, the reader never knows if they should mourn a character’s death. The character already came back twice, so there’s no reason to waste energy being upset over their third death.
The main character might be able to pull this off a few times, but when death is a revolving door, it gets old fast.
Since it’s sometimes necessary to the plot to have a character thought of as dead, here are a few tips:
Trick the other characters, not the reader. If the reader knows the character’s alive, or thinks they are, the reader isn’t going to feel cheated. Maybe there is a “rule” in your universe when it comes to the dead. If the reader knows that the one guy who can bring back the dead is going to show up after the battle, then they’re not going to mourn a character until the guy is gone.
Foreshadow. If the reader must be tricked, foreshadow it so the reader will look back and say “I should have realized.” Of course, some readers are going to catch on to this, but that always happens when you foreshadow.
Make sure there’s a reason for the character to be faking death. In some cases, the person is thought to have been dead for years, then reappears. This could be done well, if the character is wanted by five world governments and has good reason to want people, including family, to think he/she is dead, but other times, it feels forced.
Young Justice had Artemis fake being dead. The audience knew, but only a few members of the team knew. In world where moles were quite common, mind readers existed, and Artemis’s family consisted of supervillains and ex-supervillains, this made sense. The story went through great lengths to show how bad things happened because not everyone was aware Artemis hadn’t been murdered.
Don’t try to convince the reader the character is dead. Even if you want the reader to think they’re dead, don’t go out of your way to pound it into their heads that the character is dead.
Remember the cost. If you bring one character back after he/she fell off a cliff and there was no body, the next time someone falls off a cliff and there’s no body, the reader might figure that person’s alive too, because in your world you just wrote a “rule” that if people fall off cliffs and the body isn’t found, the character is alive.
Remember the sacrifice. If a character makes a heroic sacrifice and then returns, it can minimize the sacrifice. At the very least, it can minimize future sacrifices since the reader might not realize the person who sacrificed themselves really is dead.
What do you think of cases where characters come back from the dead? Have you ever done it? Does it annoy you when someone does it, or do you like it?