Seems only fitting, for such an ill-omened date as Friday the 13th, to address a rather morbid topic. So: I learned a new word the other day, and it’s one I rather like: micromort. A micromort is a unit of measurement equal to a one in a million chance of dying. Very appropriate for our data-rich, risk-averse, analytical age. (And it sounds good, too – try saying it a few times, and it starts to take on a sinister quality, doesn’t it? Or maybe that’s just me…)
From Wikipedia, I learn that the following activities add one micromort to your personal doom-tally:
eating 40 tablespoons of peanut butter;
travelling in a canoe for 6 minutes;
drinking the water in Miami for 1 year;
drinking half a litre of wine.
(Among many other interesting statistics). To which I say: wow, those canoes are killers.
Got me thinking, though, about the fatality risks associated with fulfilling certain specific character roles in epic speculative fiction, particularly of the fantastical or space opera-y kind, but also including things like superhero movies. Some quick mental arithmetic (actually, none at all), lead me to suggest the following crude approximations, expressed as micromorts per novel/film/story.
Being the main villain: I’ll go with 650,000 micromorts, since most resolutions seem to be of the terminal sort for the big bad. Taking on that role is an excellent short term strategy, since you’ve a good chance of making it almost all the way to the end, but that last big hurdle – the heroic climax – is a killer. Literally. Still, there’s a chance you might be needed for a sequel, so survival remains a possibility.
Being the main hero/heroine: 10,000 micromorts. Good prospect of survival, especially if you have been designed by the invisible author with reader identification in mind and the story is told more or less entirely from your point of view. (If auditioning for this role, play up your capacity for reader identification for all it’s worth, I’d say). Again, sequel potential is important. Death risk probably declines to no more than a few micromorts if sequels beckon; unless you’re in the hands of a slippery creator who thinks a ghost would make a fun protagonist for the next few volumes …
Being the hero/heroine’s mentor: Let’s say 500,000 micromorts. Bad news for anyone aspiring to be mentor to a future hero: I don’t fancy your chances much. Sorry. Obi Wan Kenobi, whoever Sean Connery played in Highlander, Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, Gandalf (well, not really, but sort of), the list goes on and on … Precedent is against you. That’s all I’m saying.
Being the hero/heroine’s love interest: 150,000 micromorts. Pretty safe as roles go, but not an entirely comfortable option. There exist some cruel creators who might feel a dead lover is the best possible motivation for the central character. Unfortunately, I can think of no easy way of identifying such creators in advance, so you’ll just have to cross your fingers and hope for the best …
Being the comic relief: Ooooh … 250,000 micromorts. Dangerous, to be sure, but not quite as dangerous as being a mentor, I think. Mind you, there exist some comic relief characters for whom 250,000 micromorts would be widely considered an offensively low figure. I speak of Jar Jar Binks, obviously.
Being a redshirt: 1,000,000 micromorts. By definition.
Being a character in my Godless World trilogy: This one is in fact based on some (very crude) mathematical analysis. Specifically, a quick scan of the cast list at the end of Fall of Thanes. Rather alarmingly, the figure looks to be in excess of 300,000 micromorts. It’s seriously inflated by the fact that not every named character appears in the cast list, and those that do have a higher than average chance of expiring, but even so … I’m not likely to be getting many volunteers for roles in my future work with that sort of track record.
(A parenthetical afterthought: in the unlikely event that anyone feels tempted to make a comment that incorporates plot spoilers for The Godless World, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t. I’m inclined towards a ‘minimum-spoiling’ comment policy in general and certainly as far as my own work is concerned.)