Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Death and Writing

"Why fear death? It is the most beautiful adventure in life."--Charles Frohman

Death.  It's one of the few common denominators that unites us.  There's not a single person alive who hasn't been impacted by its icy touch at one point or another--some of us have even prayed for its sweet, sweet release in the throes of a wicked hangover.  Or is that just me?

For many writers, the prospect of having to commit fictional homicide is quite daunting (unless you write dystopian novels, then you're used to a daily dose of genocide).  This is especially true if those characters are ones you've grown fond of--a main character or a particularly prevalent secondary one (sidekick), for example.  While writing my first novel, I was faced with the difficult task of killing off one of my most beloved characters.  It wasn't a surprise--not some fly-by-night decision.  I'd outlined it, and even eluded to it in previous chapters.  But still, as the big event drew nearer, I couldn't help but feel absolutely sick at the prospect.  So I put it off, even tried to figure out ways around it.  Did I really need to kill him off?  Was his death a necessity to the overall storyline?  The answer, of course, was a resounding yes.  I'd envisioned a plot that, in my opinion, gelled quite nicely and his death, though traumatic for me to write, was entirely essential.  Still, that didn't stop me from bawling like a baby--while simultaneously feeling as though I'd completely lost my mind--as I keyed in his last breathe.  Believe me, I was happy I was the only one awake in the house at the time or else I would have had some serious explaining to do--and probably commitment into the nut house once those explanations had been rendered.

That being said, as hard as it is for writers to shank their characters, it can be even more difficult for the reader to fully accept said shanking.  When I was but a wee one, I remember reading such classics as Charlotte's Web and Where the Red Fern Grows of which end results practically set my stirrup pants aflame.  Why oh why couldn't the authors have gone another route? After all, don't all stories have a  happy ending?  Needless to say, I was a pretty jaded child.  However, as ticked-off as my prepubescent self was at the utter travesties unfolding before me, my anger paled in comparison to those living a century earlier.

Fans of Sherlock Holmes channeled their aggressions in more productive means when their beloved detective was inexplicably axed by Arthur Conan Doyle.  Not only were faniacs of Mr. Holmes enraged, they--along with the books' own publishing company--damn near set out on a mission to force Mr. Holmes' resurrection.  Ultimately, the angry mob won, and in "The Empty House", the super sleuth was reborn. 

Was this the right thing of Arthur Conan Doyle to do?  Well, if you want my opinion (and I'm guessing you may as you are reading my blog), I believe the author should have stuck to his convictions and kept Holmes six feet under.  After all, there was a  reason why he felt compelled to hurtle him from a cliff in the first place.

A character's death in a favorite novel is always a contentious issue that, in the end, was the writer's rightful decision to make.  That being said, on the flip-side of the coin, there are those deaths--mainly in movies--that make eyebrows raise and the 'huh' factor kick in. Illustrated below, are ways in which I believe deaths in literature should be executed (unintended pun) and ways that I believe fall stiff (someone, please stop me):

Hands off the Chosen One:  I once read an article roughly stating that an author shouldn't kill off those characters their readers are attached to.  Are you kidding me?  I grumbled angrily to myself like a senior citizen discovering they'd missed a Matlock re-run.  Why not?  To me, killing off a main character--when done in a way befitting of the plot or of the character's nature--makes for a great read.  I detest reading predictable plot lines knowing the main protagonist has acquired an immunity to death.  When reading, I want the pages to keep me on my toes and leave me guessing.  Knowing there are those who are untouchable in a novel is far from guessing and downright boring.  As in life, not all stories have a happy ending.

Death should have meaning--In J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of The Rings, Boromir dies while trying to save the hobbits from near certain demise.  His death served a purpose.  All lives have meaning (including literary ones); therefore, their deaths should follow suit.  This doesn't mean you need to make all your characters die in a heroic fashion, but their deaths should be thought-out and not just randomly inserted into the pages.  After all, you spent how many hours perfecting character development? Developing their individual personalities? Their family trees?  Who they love? With deciding what shade to make their hair; what hue that describes their eyes; and whether they feel Diet Dr. Pepper tastes just like regular Dr. Pepper?

Change is good-In The Lovely Bones, a deceased Susie Salmon narrates from the afterlife as her family copes with her tragic murder.  Death, whether it is foreseen ahead of time or completely out of the blue, is a game changer and Alice Sebold's story reflects this beautifully.  Susie's once quintessential-wouldn't-harm-a- fly father begins having murderous ideations of his own as he attempts to track down his daughter's killer.  Her mother, a once devoted wife, is stricken so severely with depression that she packs up and leaves  her husband, son and youngest daughter behind (after having an affair with the lead detective on her daughter's murder case--she was one busy woman).   

In my first novel, my teenage protagonist's life is turned upside down with the murder of her entire family.  She goes from being a happy-go-lucky teenager to--flash forward ten years later--an assassin for a secret organization formed to defeat the person or persons responsible not only for her parents deaths, but for the deaths of thousands of others as well. 

When someone you love dies they take a piece of your soul with them.  I liken it to a damaged puzzle piece.  Even though 499 of the 500 pieces still fit together perfectly, there's still a gaping hole where the 500th piece should be.  Fill your surviving characters with these holes.  Make them act out of character, display grief, or have them turn their walls into swiss cheese to let their anger out.  Just don't let them experience trauma unscathed as death leaves no emotional stone unturned. Use their death as a jumping off point to make your story better because it happened and not despite of it happening.

Mourning period--After a character I particularly care about dies, I like to see some sort of mourning period before the action picks right back up again.  This doesn't mean a writer should spend chapter upon chapter recounting the remaining character's endless therapy sessions, gallons of Ben and Jerry's consumed, or endless nights of their crying themselves to sleep.  What I mean is, I don't think business should go about as usual after someone kicks it.  Did you return to work the day after dear old Grandma Pearl passed?  Yeah, I don't think you did.  If the deceased meant anything to your main characters at all, it's simply unrealistic for them to shrug it off and return to their lives as if the person never existed.  Whether your characters later gather together around a poker table to shoot the breeze; sit at a window sill on a rainy day looking through photo albums; or devote their lives to finding their loved ones murderer; a realistic amount of mourning needs to be interwoven into your story.

Shock value--The absolute worst death is one carried out only to shock the reader.  If you're at a point in your book where you believe the only way to redeem a stagnating plot line is to have Little Johnny inexplicably axe Suzie Q next door, then there are more issues to your story that you clearly need to work out.  The only exception I make to this is if you're writing some psychological thriller wherein absolutely nothing else happening before it has made any sense at all anyway (of course, I'm not always the sharpest tool in the shed when it comes to figuring out the hidden meanings in those things).

No blood baths please--The terms "bloody", "beheaded", "dismembered", or "disemboweled" are graphic enough to conjure up the appropriate imagery needed to transport readers to the scene of the crime.  They can stand alone without the added bonuses associated with them.  For instance, I don't need to know that the character's entrails were wound around a support beam like some sadistic maypole. Nor do I want to hear that said character's brain matter was spattered against the wall creating a grisly mosaic.  As far as brutal demises are concerned, the less you say, the more your readers are left to use their imaginations.  Believe me, those imaginations are more than capable of filling in the blanks as we humans are a very visual species and don't need to be reminded that crime scenes are not the Botanical Gardens.

An easy out--Ever have one of those characters you really aren't too sure about?  One that, at first, had all the promise in the world...until about nine chapters into the story.  Then they started becoming downright inconsequential, merely sitting on the sidelines while your protagonist and his/her/its posse ruled the roost.  Want to remedy that? 

Characters shouldn't be created only to be terminated when the writer doesn't want to deal with their complexities (yes, I have heard of writers doing this) or on a "what if" whim. Don't take the easy way out with your characters. Being a writer, you're obviously somewhat creative.  Put the depths of your creativity to the test.  When that fails, walk away from you story long enough to let your mind clear and your focus return.  If, after you pick up your manuscript you are still arriving at the same conclusion, then turn your grisly scenario into fruition and see where that takes you.  Although I believe it to be unlikely, who knows, you may find playing God to be exactly the rejuvenation your plot needed. 

Cliches Kill--I touch on cliches quite a bit in my blog posts so why should this one be any different?  The following are a few "For the love of God don'ts" when it comes to character deaths: 

Don't do the character death fake-out:  One minute he's dead, the next minute he's enjoying coffee at Starbuck's, WTF  There damn well be a good explanation for that.

Don't make the character see the light:  This is really only in the case in villain deaths (and I'm excluding Darth Vader from this).  A villain, a true, true villain is not going to be at all sorry for what they did in life in the seconds before their decent to the netherworld.

Don't put some wicked curse on the protagonist or the whole town:  It's not that I think it isn't at all exciting, it's just that it's been done over and over and over and over and over...

What are some of your least favorite death cliches?

Right off the bat--I'm one of those people whose attention is garnered by a good ole' fashioned demise right out of the gate (especially, if it's in a prologue and the character spends the actual story narrating the events before his/her death, but that's beside the point).  With the exclusion of sex, death is probably one of the biggest attention grabbers for readers.  It's something we can all relate to, have thought about, or have experienced first-hand.  A well-executed death within the first couple pages of a novel sets the tone for the rest of the story while captivating the readers, ensuring they stick around for pages to come.  An early demise begs the questions of who and why.  Who was the person killed (or, in mysteries, who killed the victim).  Why were they killed? Did they by chance proclaim their devotion to Team Edward amongst a slew of Team Jacob fans?  There's a lot to build upon and the possibilities are limitless.

In short, a great literary death should not only grab your readers attention but should also provide your novel with just the right amount of spice needed to make it palatable. As always, the preceding post is comprised of my opinions.  The literary world is one of the most subjective environments out there (as any agent will tell you).  What works for one writer may not work for another.  What fits with one genre, may be completely ridiculous for another. 


Rob "Sharky" Pruneda said...

This is the first time I've read your blog and absolutely loved it! I was about to turn off my computer and go to bed, when a tweet caught my eye: New Blog Post: Death and Writing.

Hmm... that sounded like an interesting post, so I read it. I'm glad I did, too. Very informative and helpful. I'm currently in the process of editing and making some revisions to a book I self-published in 2004 (planning on making it available as an e-book), and your post gave me some insight on what I need to think about when I come back to one particular scene in my book.

I look forward to reading more of your posts.

Anonymous said...

Great post, I'm glad to see I'm not the only one bawling as I write.

linda said...

I hate it when a character I like dies too! I always try to pick out characters who are most likely to die so I can keep myself from getting too attached, but it doesn't always work. I will probably cry buckets if I have to kill any of my characters.

But yeah, that death fake-out thing is soooo annoying, even when there's an explanation. Especially when it's obvious the author would never actually kill off that character.

Thanks for the great post!

Anonymous said...

And this is why I can't write fiction. I just can't do it. Even if the story seem to demand the death of a character it's just not in me. lol

But I agree, death I think gives the story another dimension of sophistication when its done well & when it fits the story. I hate stories that just kills off characters purely for shock value.

Sara Furlong-Burr said...

Rob-I'm so glad you stopped by! Thank you for the sweet comment. I'm currently tossing around the idea of e-booking it as well and I'm glad my post was helpful to you. :-)

Elle-Thanks for stopping by! I'm an emotional person and cry at everything, but that one scene was really emotionally trying for me.

Linda-Hello! I know what you mean. I tried avoiding it, but it was essential for the storyline.

Sophie-I know!!! It's so hard to kill off a character. I tried working around it, but, for the story to progress the way I wanted it to, it was inevitable.