Countdown to NaNoWriMo: 9 days

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What are two things that everyone reading this blog entry have in common?

Simple. They were all born, and (SPOILER ALERT) they’re all going to die one day. As you probably gathered by the rather gaunt-looking fellow in the picture above, the latter is what I’m focusing on today.

How frequently do you use death as a plot device in your stories? It’s certainly a resolution with finality to it in realistic fiction. It does seem that there’s a trend  in fiction to make works “darker, grittier and edgier” by simply ramping up the body count, as if a large number of bodies makes for a better story. In certain cases it works, and I know that one of the reasons I enjoy the “Song of Ice and Fire” series by George R.R. Martin is because that just about any character can die at any time. It isn’t the shocking nature of the deaths or how gory the way a character passes that makes that a good series though. It’s the impact the deaths have on the other characters and the political situation.

That cuts to the core of things. Death, like any other character event or plot driver isn’t something that needs to be thrown into the story. You have to consider the simple question “does this serve the story?”

Certain stories almost require death. A murder mystery inherently demands that there by a death (or at least the appearance of one) for the characters to investigate, for example. A war story without death would be unusual to say the least, as wars aren’t note for their lack of casualties.

My own story for NaNoWriMo is also going to feature a death as a major plot driver, as the sacrificial victim in my logline (“A dissolute knight is possessed by a century-old sacrificial victim to overthrow a cruel god,” admit it you’ve missed seeing that phrase in these blogs) absolutely has to be sacrificed or there wouldn’t be a story. I think it’ll also help with the possession dynamic later on.

Another aspect of death that bothers me is the cheapness of resurrection. It seems that in a lot of media, dead characters just won’t stay dead. This is especially prevalent in comics, where Jean Grey of the X-Men has died at least four times (implying three resurrections), granted her codename was Phoenix and coming back from the dead is what a phoenix does in mythology.

Of course resurrection as a plot device predates comics by a considerable margin, with the Ancient Egyptian myth of Osiris being the earliest example I can think of. There are literary resurrections that are infamous too, such as Sherlock Holmes returning from death in the short story “The Adventure of the Empty House” due to a demanding public. And in a far less high-brow, and considerably newer example Optimus Prime has died and resurrected so many times it’s become a signature motif for him.

If resurrection serves the story, then it can be a good thing, but so often, all it does, especially if it’s a well that’s returned to frequently, is undermine the impact of character deaths and lower the tension and stakes in a story. As a writer, I don’t want to be deliberately lowering the stakes in my stories, and as a reader, I want what the story to feel like it matters and is a big deal. If death is just a minor inconvenience, then I lose that.

What are your thoughts on death and resurrection in fiction?

(Image by: Rob Harry)

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2 thoughts on “Countdown to NaNoWriMo: 9 days

  1. I think of the two, resurrection is the more difficult to do well (I almost said “problematic” there, hee), for all the reasons you note. I hate it when it comes across as the Superpower of Authorly Convenience. I think that if you’re going to make it possible, you’ve got to balance that by making it an expensive and difficult option (like you have to with any powerful magic, really). Stories like Pet Sematary or a certain storyline in ASOIAF, where it goes horribly wrong and/or there is a steep price to pay, make it much more interesting.

    On the other hand, most of my stories involve at least one ghost or otherwise dead person walking amongst the living, so, I guess I abuse both death and resurrection on a regular basis. 🙂

    • Yeah, neither device is a cheap trick provided that the death/resurrection is earned by the story and characters. It has to have a steep price and shouldn’t work out to conveniently even then.

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