Monday, August 17, 2009

Handling Death In Fiction

Death happens to all of us. Most people know people who have died. I didn’t know him personally, only having read his books and his blog, but just the other day I opened my feed reader and where I would have expected to see a blog post from Blake Snyder I saw a notice saying that he had passed away. He was in his early fifties. This experience made me think about how we handle the deaths of our characters. When we write, some characters die. If we are writing a murder mystery, that is pretty much a requirement. With other books, the story may not tell us about anyone dying, but death is in the back story and future story of every character. Death is a part of every story. The decision we must make is how to handle it.

Ignoring Death

There are a number of different ways to handle death in a story. One thing we can do is simply ignore it, as if death doesn’t happen. In many stories, death is not an important part of the story. Though the characters have lost friends and loved one, we don’t talk about this. This is similar to what happens in real life. After our loved ones have been gone for a while, we don’t talk about their deaths as much as we once did. They are gone. Life moves on. Many novels never mention death and they don’t need to.

A Chosen Victim

Some stories require a victim. Someone has died and the detective must discover why. What villain has cut this life short? In this case, the death itself isn’t all that important. It provides us with a puzzle we must solve and nothing more. The reader rarely has much emotional attachment to these chosen victims. Some writers will try to imply that the protagonist has some emotional attachment, as the victim may be his wife, girlfriend or daughter, but the reader has no emotional involvement with the dead character. With these deaths, we need not spend a lot of time considering the emotions surrounding death.

Red Shirt Death

It takes a lot of work to develop a good character, so we don’t like to kill off good characters on a whim. Red Shirts, however, are expendable. They are also very good at dying. The purpose of killing a red shirt is to show just how bad the villain is. If the villain tells the protagonist that he is going to kill him, we don’t know whether to believe him or not. He could be bluffing. But if the villain shoots a red shirt for not telling him what he wants to hear and he then turns to the protagonist who is also not giving him the information he wants to hear, we fear for the protagonist.

Death Equals Justice

When the villain dies in the end, it is usually a case of justice. Good always wins over evil. After the villain has killed enough people, the only solution is to kill him off in the end. When this happens, the reader is often cheering for his death. Whether we show the death of only give the promise of a death sentence for his crimes, a story isn’t satisfying if the villain doesn’t get what he deserves.

Death Comes Slowly

I once heard a story about a man who was asked to take care of his friend’s cat. The friend called from vacation and asked about the cat. “It died,” the man said. His friend said, “You shouldn’t have just told me it died like that. You could have told me it was up on the roof and you couldn’t get it down. Then tomorrow you could tell me that it had fallen and was injured. Then the next day you could tell me it died. You ought to creep upon something like this.” The next day, the vacationing friend called again to see how things were going. The man answered, “About your aunt, she climbed up on the roof.”

Some death comes slowly. We give the reader plenty of warning, so that when it happens it isn’t a shock. Some books are about people sitting around waiting for someone to die. When the dead finally happens, it may be sad, but it is expected.

Full On Death

In real life, death often comes as a shock. When I was working on my Masters, I received an e-mail from the college dean stating that one of my professors had died. I went back to work after a three day weekend one time and someone asked me if I had heard about one of my co-workers dying. I arrived at work one time to learn that my boss had died. Death is shocking, but how do we encase this shock in our books?

As we look at the shocking kind of death, what we realize is that the thing that makes it different from the other ways of handling death that I mentioned above is that it changes the story. In the case of my co-worker, he was responsible for giving us direction of how his organization needed the project we were working on to go. I was expecting to show up at work, have him provide us with guidance and then we would go off and do work. Instead, I showed up at work and he was dead. It was a sudden change in direction and there was nothing we could do prevent it.

Applying this to a story, suppose we have a character who is very active in the story. The reader has some idea of where the story is going and all indications are that the character is a major part of it. There is not solution without the character. He is making plans with our protagonist. Perhaps they are making wedding plans. We turn the page and he is dead. To make it the most shocking, we don’t give any warning, such as a villain who is threatening to kill him. We might completely disconnect the death from the story. He just dies. What as once a love story comes to an abrupt halt and now it is about the protagonist dealing with death.

Suppose you have written a romance novel. It follows the typical romance pattern, with two people not getting along until they reach the point where they realize how much they need each other, after which they make up and promise to love each other forever. Now, pick a page a random and in the middle of the page write the words, “He died.” It might be something like the following:

She felt his big beefy arms around her. They were hard, like the muscles of the horses she loved to ride when she was a kid, though his arms weren’t as hairy. At least she didn’t think so. She couldn’t be sure, since he always wore a long sleeved shirt. She supposed that was because of his job. It didn’t matter. He made her feel safe. She wanted stay in these arms forever, protected from [insert “He died.” here] the world that sought to destroy her, the world that would ruin her business and never stop to apologize. These arms would protect her. If her business folded, she wouldn’t care, as long as she could stay right here.

She felt his lips against hers. They tasted a little like the cherry pie she had served him for dessert. She could imagine a lifetime of those kisses.

With the insertion, this passage becomes:

She felt his big beefy arms around her. They were hard, like the muscles of the horses she loved to ride when she was a kid, though his arms weren’t as hairy. At least she didn’t think so. She couldn’t be sure, since he always wore a long sleeved shirt. She supposed that was because of his job. It didn’t matter. He made her feel safe. She wanted stay in these arms forever, protected from…

“Something’s wrong,” he said.

She felt his arms go limp. She tried to catch him as he fell to the floor, but he weighed too much for her, dragging her with him. And he was gone. His big heart beat no more. His eyes stared at nothing. She could only call for an ambulance and cry, knowing it was too late. Her protector was gone for good.

This is only a short scene, but imagine how it would shock your reader if she were to be reading a story like this and the man suddenly died in the middle of a love scene. The whole story would change from that point on. Whatever the reader thought was going to happen isn’t going to happen now. After spending so much time getting so excited about the man in the story, he just dies. When it comes to death, that is about as real as we can get in a story.