There's a thread I occasionally pop in on in the RWBY forum, where the fate of Pyrrha Nikos is regularly discussed. One of the possible methods for her to return to the show is resurrection. Especially with Ozpin apparently living inside Oscar's head, the idea that death may not be the end has been introduced to the world of Remnant. So, I thought I'd take a few minutes to talk about resurrection in storytelling.
What I will do in this journal is lay out how it can be a good thing, how it can be a bad thing, the rules I think need to be in place to make it effective, and how I might make use of it in RWBY if I were writing the story. What I will not do is try to make arguments about whether Pyrrha is alive, dead, or something else. This is not about her, it is about resurrection in general. With those ground rules established, let us begin.
How Resurrection Can Be Good
There is a romantic view of death, that you can sacrifice yourself for a noble cause, or give your life for someone you love. Famous quotes notwithstanding, death's finality is pretty well established in the real world. However, when you're writing fiction, you are not constrained by the rules of reality. You are the creator, which means you can do whatever you want. And whatever you do is automatically correct, because it's your world and your story. That is very much the beauty of storytelling: whatever your vision is, it is by definition the right one, because it's yours.
The idea that there is more to follow after someone dies can create unique storylines in the narrative. Consider a story where someone dies a meaningless death, but they have the solution to the world's biggest problem, and so they fight their way back from death and into their (or someone else's) body, to save the world. Or a group who loses someone they love, but they hear about a mystic who can control life and death, and they seek this person out as a last ditch effort to get their beloved friend back.
Including a way to continue on after death opens up a lot of options for stories that just don't exist if death is the final chapter. If done well, a resurrection story can greatly deepen the emotional connection between characters, and between the reader and the story. If it's done well.
How Resurrection Can Be Bad
There is an obvious counterargument to this idea, though: if resurrection is possible, then death is no longer really a threat. It is easy to fall into a trap of having resurrection be so commonplace that there's no reason to fear it, because you can just come back again. In something like Dungeons & Dragons, where the idea is to keep as many people having fun for as long as possible, an easy resurrection mechanic is useful, because it keeps you in the game even if you totally mess up. In a fixed narrative, it's a lot harder to do well.
If you cheapen death in your world by making it easily reversible, then it's easy for the audience to become disengaged from the characters. Sure, they may be in an extremely dangerous situation where they could all die, but they can always just come back later anyway, so what's the big deal? Handling resurrection poorly essentially turns it from a serious threat into a minor setback.
If the reader (or viewer) knows that their favourite characters are never really at risk, then there's no reason to ever worry about them. And if they're never really worried about them, then they necessarily become less invested in their safety, and subsequently the story. Resurrection handled poorly can break your world in the minds of your audience.
The Rules For Handling Resurrection
As I see it, there are a few rules that must be adhered to for resurrection to exist in a world without breaking it. Those rules are:
- It must be done to advance the plot. You can't bring back a character just because the fans want it to happen. Yes it will bring back their favourite character, but what else does it actually accomplish? At best it will be confusing, and at worst it will grind your story to a halt as people try to figure out what to do next. There has to be a reason for them to come back beyond "people want it." Don't bring people back willy-nilly - it has to be part of the planned story all along. Your audience isn't dumb; they'll know the difference.
- It must be hard. You can't have a magical resurrection machine that just pumps out reanimated people. There needs to be work involved to make it happen. Your characters should have to dedicate a major portion of their time towards it, encountering setbacks along the way until they finally make it happen. Another way to look at this is it must be earned. Resurrection needs to be rare and difficult if death is to still have meaning.
- It must have a cost. And a severe one at that. Resurrection cannot take the form of "pour this down their throat and they come back good as new." Your audience won't buy it. Defying the laws of nature is a serious decision, and so there must be serious consequences for doing it. If you can bring back your friend, but someone else must willingly sacrifice their own life to make it happen, then the decision to bring them back suddenly isn't so cut and dried. Perhaps getting them back does just require giving them a potion, but when they come back they are irreparably changed, or they have total amnesia and must be re-taught everything they knew. If resurrection carries weight, then your audience will be much more engaged with it. Especially if there's a chance it will fail in the first place.
After I came up with these three rules, I went looking online to see if anyone else had done something similar. I found that Barry Kirwan, author of the Eden's Paradox science fiction series, had laid out seven rules for resurrection in science fiction. His rules are:
There has to be a good scientific premise for resurrection
There has to be a ‘cost’ to the individual, usually a change for the worst
It is not done ‘willy-nilly’, resurrection is only done for strategic reasons
Not everyone can come back
It shouldn't be used too often
One or more of those resurrected must subsequently die
The mechanism for resurrection must be vulnerable, and is preferably neutralised at least once so no more resurrection is possible.
How I Would Use It With Pyrrha
For the sake of this journal, we will assume that Pyrrha is dead. What might be an engaging storyline based around getting her back? We have to start with Ozpin. We know that his consciousness lives on in Oscar. Presumably, he will be able to convince the main cast that he is who he says he is. He may even end up having his consciousness transferred to a new robotic body - Penny was a robot that could generate Aura, why not recreate that but with an actual human mind in it? Remnant is a land of wonders.
Let's assume seasons 5 and 6 in some way deal with Ozpin, with his situation eventually settling into his being returned somewhat whole. The story continues on for another 2 or 3 years with no further mention or thoughts of people returning from the dead. Then, at the end of season (let's say) 8, a teenage girl approaches our main protagonists talking about how hard it's been to get back and find them. Confused, they ask her what she's talking about, and she says "It's me - Pyrrha." Eyes go wide. Cut to black. "Hello again." Credits roll.
At the beginning of season 9, the main group are understandably suspicious of this new person claiming to be Pyrrha. They test her on things only Pyrrha would know, and she has all the answers. She tells them a story about how her body was disintegrated, but her consciousness remained behind, disembodied, unable to find purchase in anything. She spent years trying to find a way to manifest, and was about to give up when she saw a light over the horizon. She went to it, and there found a mysterious portal of white light. She walked through it, and surprised a group of children who were playing at trying to contact the dead, appearing as a phantasm. It turns out one of them had a Semblance that actually made such communication possible. When the children fled, her consciousness was forced to latch onto the nearest human body - the child with the Semblance.
They travelled together for a time, both very confused, and learned that the reason this had happened had to do with the massive amount of Dust Cinder weaves into her clothes, plus the Maiden powers that killed Pyrrha. The combination caused an Aura disruption of some kind, and forced her consciousness to remain behind. Eventually they encountered someone who had decided to take her own life, and they convinced her to let Pyrrha inhabit her body, and now here she is.
Still skeptical, they ask Ozpin if this is possible, and Ozpin's response is basically that he hasn't heard of it happening before, but that doesn't mean it isn't possible - nobody had heard of anything until they did. This new person seems to have Pyrrha's mannerisms, and seems to know things only Pyrrha would know, so they cautiously accept her into their group. They learn that she has taken to quiet solitary meditation at times, to help cope with what happened and stay centred.
The next time they encounter Grimm, they find out that Pyrrha's fighting style is different. It turns out her Semblance didn't transfer over to the new body, and so she has a new one now. She's also out of practice fighting, having gone multiple years without a physical form. Nonetheless, she proves her dedication to the group through many fights and experiences, and travels with them. There are things she sometimes forgets from her original life, but having been dead for years and in a new body, she is forgiven for that.
Shortly after she's more or less accepted as being Pyrrha returned to them, she mentions an item she learned about in the time they've been apart which could help in the fight against the Grimm, and perhaps even allow them to defeat the Grimm entirely. At the end of season 11, they find it. They fight through enemies to get to it, and when it's finally time to claim it, Pyrrha picks it up and says it's not theirs to use against the Grimm, it's hers to use for her own purposes. Confused, they question her about it, and she mocks them for actually thinking she was Pyrrha.
She's actually someone who heard about Ozpin's miraculous resurrection, and decided to use a similar story to infiltrate the one group of people who may actually be able to help her achieve her goals. She had the power to take the item, but had been unsuccessful in locating it. Until she had the idea to use the friends of the dead hero to do it for her, at least. Ruby says she'll never get away with this (as heroes are wont to do), and she says "You stupid girl. Did you really think I was talking to myself when I went off alone?" At that moment, dozens of enemies swarm them, and she escapes in the chaos. The season ends mid-fight.
So what does this do?
First, it gives us a resurrection in the form of Ozpin. It sets expectations that such a thing is possible. It appears that RWBY is already going in this direction. Then, several years removed from that (so as to prevent it from seeming common), we get another resurrection. Her story of how it happened validates the "must be hard" condition, and the Semblance change and loss of abilities satisfies the "must involve a sacrifice" condition. When she presents a mcguffin for them to seek out, it becomes validated by plot as not having happened just to satisfy the people who want her back.
The forgetfulness and "meditation" serve as clues to the audience that the supposed resurrected Pyrrha is not what she seems. Jaune can even voice this concern and have it be dismissed by other characters. At the end, subverting the resurrection raises the stakes: not only is there a new enemy, but it's one that knows everything about them, and has a powerful artifact that can presumably wreak grand havoc.
More to the point, what this does is provide a resurrection storyline that does not cheapen death in the world, and both enriches the plot and drives it forward. When it resolves, it sets up the next several seasons as being important.
Of course, this is just one way of handling a resurrection subplot in RWBY. I'd like to read what you guys think of resurrection in fiction, and in RWBY specifically. Please keep it polite - I don't want people swearing at each other in the comments about why Pyrrha is or isn't alive, etc.
So what do you think?