Ruminations on Death in Literature

The Never Ending Dream prompt from Writer’s Digest spawned my last post, and, as usual, generated a stream of amazing responses on their site.  This one is without a doubt my favorite.  The author and I then entered a small discussion about death in literature, and it got me thinking about the subject.  And so here I am, typing away.

Spoiler alert: in my writing, people tend to die.

My acting editor/enslaved boyfriend can back this up: he knows exactly what I’ve done if I tell him “I’m a bastard.”  It means I’ve written another death, and it was probably someone we care about as readers, and I made it sad.

The following are a few points on death and dying from my personal experience, and my writing habits.  I’d love to hear your opinions: please comment away.

The Poetic Departure: what happens when they die?

I once held a baby mouse that my cat had gotten a hold of and beaten up.  I was trying to give it some milk.  It died in my hand.  When my grandmother passed away, surrounded by family, I was watching the moment she died.

But the part that really got me, the part that stuck with me, is that, unlike all that poetic nonsense about feeling them slip away, death is nothing like that.  Some parts of the brain keep going afterwards, so sometimes you can’t properly tell.  It’s sudden and surprising and the line between dying and death is actually profoundly difficult to discern without a prolonged beep from the EKG to tell you.  “The Moment” blends into all the surrounding moments so you’re not at all sure of anything.

I think that realization was more painful than feeling someone fade could ever be, just because of all that poetic nonsense my head was filled with.  So when I wrote the death of a main character in his lover’s arms, and she went through the realization that poetry had lied when it promised her that beautiful last moment, she felt betrayed- even under all the sadness.

As a result, I will never write a “poetic departure.”  Humans don’t have a sixth sense for life-force.  Maybe doctors or nurses or EMTs and other such people that see death on a regular basis can make educated guesses, but most of us can’t.  I think it’s an over-used trope, and should be reserved for cases of ESP.

Mass Casualty: anonymity vs. making it personal

In literature, a lot of people die.  When there are a lot of people that die at once, it’s hard for the average person to wrap his or her mind around it.  How many of us have seen 10 people die at once, let alone 100 or 1000?  Anonymous death has its uses, of course: a horrible plague, a terrible war… but I don’t think it will ever be effective and impacting in quite the same way as a victim with a face.

I just wrote a mass casualty recently where 47 fae died.  I end a chapter like that.  Then I start the new one backing up a bit, and I give them faces.  Some are secondary characters, with names and faces and dialogue.  Some leave behind dear friends.  Some are background characters, because killing 47 developed characters would make for a very long development stage.  But then, at the funeral, a few of those nameless fae get faces: a priest here, a learned assistant there.  I made it more personal, and therefore more effective.

I didn’t cry when I read the number 47.  I cried when my main character was comforting her friend, trying not to put names to the bloodstains on his clothes.

Size matters: when you’re picking the size of the coffin

When we’re dealing with individual deaths, all specific and intimate, things are a little different.  We’ve all read the deaths of bad guys, good guys, innocents… and there’s nothing so sad as the death of a complete innocent.

I have had babies die in the womb and in the crib.  They never had a chance at life.  They probably had no awareness of what was happening.  I have killed young adults that never knew love.  I have killed old men that never got to really live.  I have killed universes.

But I have never- never- written the death of a child, in all its intimate and tragic detail.  That is where this post began, from the story I linked to at the beginning.  There’s nothing quite like the death of a child.  It’s that way in real life, too, so why wouldn’t it carry over?

Babies are innocent and fragile and their death is unjust, but they haven’t become “real” people yet.  It’s almost like the faceless deaths I mentioned before: plenty tragic, but…  I don’t know this character.  I’ve never spoken with it, never watched it play… never had my heart break as that character tried to rationalize imminent tragedy.

Children, however, are actually developed characters, and they’re often the best, most innocent aspects of humanity all crammed into a tiny little person.  They’re old enough to understand that death is coming, but cannot possibly understand why.  There is no fear as potent as the fear of a child.  I guess that’s why I haven’t written it yet.

Because if I have to buy a coffin, I would rather have it be full sized, for someone who’s lived, or tiny, for someone who wasn’t even aware enough to know he didn’t get to live.  I’m not a mother yet, but I don’t think that opinion will ever change.


And before anyone says anything about me being a terrible baby killer:

I am a firm believer that my stories come from somewhere else.  My characters tell me what happens to them.  I don’t consciously decide to kill them, ever.


So, like I said in the beginning, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

2 thoughts on “Ruminations on Death in Literature

  1. It’s hard enough to read about people dying, it tears your heart apart to write about death. Do you remember Harry Potter horcruxes? I think for a writer a death of a character is another horcrux that a writer puts a piece of his\her own soul in, at least if feels like that for me.

    I agree with you on the anonymity aspect of it, I often thought about it when I was reading scenes of massacres in books. It helps to detach yourself a little from the people dying, which doesn’t in any way make the event less horrible. But don’t blame yourself for killing so many people (whoever read Game of Thrones would understand what I mean)))

    • Svapne says:

      I think the horcrux is a good analogy. I feel bad, but… if I feel bad, that means it’s effective writing, which is good. That leads to things like my sociopathic “my problem” response. 😛

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