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Saturday, January 21, 2012

How to cope with DEATH…in writing

I originally guest-posted this post on C.K Volnek's The Mind's Eye blog  on January 12th -great blog, check it out

We all see it. On the television, in video games, some of us have he misfortune of witnessing it in real life.  Some of us more than once.

I myself have been a witness to death’s clammy hand escorting a loved one from this world. I have seen the aftermath of this process and I have also seen a person pull from the grip of that hand and return to the living.  She was certainly on her way down the path until us humans intervened and escorted her back. 

Death, I’m afraid, is all around us. 

Daniel Defoe wrote, "Things as certain as death and taxes, can be more firmly believed." in his novel, The Political History of the Devil.

“After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” JK Rowling

Death is a delightful hiding place for weary men.  ~Herodotus

The graveyards are full of indispensable men.  ~Charles de Gaull

End? No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path... One that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass... And then you see it.
What? Gandalf?... See what?
White shores... and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.  ~The Return of the King

Most every story involves death, the threat of death or the fear of death.  So, how should the writer handle such a sensitive subject?

Hold up. Sensitive? We watch people (actors actually) die in gruesome, dramatic ways every day on the television. Video games allow us to do the killing and have become so realistic that one can take a life and then mutilate the body simply for the sake of entertainment.  Is such a commonplace occurrence really a sensitive subject? Tragic? Horrifying?

The answer is yes.  When you care about the person. When you loved them and they loved you in return. Then, it matters.  When you lose a child, it matters.  When you aren’t ready for them to go or they aren’t ready to walk down the path where the grey rain-curtain rolls back, it is terrible, tragic, horrifying even.  But…death will come for us all.  A vampire may be immortal, yet Anne Rice is as mortal as you and I and while her tales will live on, she will certainly walk the path.

So, how then, as an author, should one deal with death? Think about several things.  First, think about your readers.  Are they adults? Teens? Children? Everyday adults, teens and yes, even children deal with death.  They deal in different ways and as writers; we must be sensitive to that. 

If you’re writing a picture book for five-year-olds, I probably wouldn’t have Billy turn into a zombie and feast on the flesh of his still living parents –not necessarily because seeing Billy the zombie boy would be so horrifying for the reader but because in that context, there is little opportunity to discuss how other characters in the story deal with those deaths. 

HERE is where the obligation comes in.  We are obligated to provide enough character development in the story for the reader to see that the death or deaths do impact the emotions of those characters.  There is an emotional price to pay in losing someone close or even witnessing the death of a stranger and our characters must pay it. 

If you’re writing for elementary school children you damn well better see that your characters take the time to work through the deaths they have witnessed.  There must be a struggle.  A self-examination. In the case of mid-grade and teens it may be even more important because they now have an understanding of the finality of it and probably more than half have experienced it on a personal level.

Harry Potter struggled with death in all of the seven books.  The death of his parents, the death of his godfather. Yes, he was a wizard but he was also a human and dealt with loss as a human does.  There is ALWAYS an emotional price to pay when someone close to your main character dies just as in life. ALWAYS. 

Another great example: The bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson. I’m sure most of us have read it. If not, it is a must-read.           

Us YA writers are obligated to take this seriously.  And why wouldn’t you?  An emotional struggle is an excellent development tool.  It can lead to great and terrible things.  The end result doesn’t need to be normal (think Darth Vader) but the struggle as a result of loss, exposure to horrible things or being forced to partake in an act resulting in death –or, the extreme, willingly deciding to take another life always need be present because we’re writing about humans for humans.  If they don’t care that they’ve just dropped a boulder on top of Piggy’s head then something is wrong with those characters and THAT better be explained. 

Marcus can’t decide to walk onto his school bus and go on a shooting spree for no reason.  We need a back-story, an investigation -a trigger that set Marcus in this final deadly direction.  It’s never cut and dry.  He’s never simply a cold-blooded killer. The black and white of good and evil is best left to the television and movie producers who feel no obligation to delve into the emotional ramifications of death. 

YA readers struggle emotionally with virtually everything at one time or another during their maturing process.  They are hyper-sensitive to the goings on around them, which is why they are drawn to the books that embellish love, over-accentuate action, encapsulate them in drama and yes, face that fearful subject of death.

George R. R. Martin’s novels depict death, rape and murder as if they were as commonplace as road-rage is in our world.  First, his books are for adults and second, that extremely visceral and horrifying world he takes his readers into is, for the most part, an accurate description of the historical period that he created his novels around.  The cold, hard, truth of a terrible world. Good reading? Perhaps. For the YA audience?  No.

Consider your readers.  Consider your own experiences and consider the ramifications of your characters emotional responses to the circumstances that surround them.  A lack of response is still a response, which very often leads to something more compelling later on in the story.

If Timmy doesn’t care that he just fed his little sister to the crocodile at the zoo, you better have a damn good explanation as to why. Otherwise, not only are you creating an empty, virtually useless character, but your story as a whole will be drug down by that one character who murdered for its own sake and that isn’t a compelling story at all.

J. R. Wagner is the author of Exiled, book one of The Never Chronicles.  Exiled is releasing June 5th of this year. 

To contact me via email : Josh @TheNeverChronicles.com (I’m always up for some blog swapping)
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