Has death ever let you down? Death can be considered the ultimate drama—but perhaps because of that, it can become a solution that is too easy to reach for. Unfortunately, death is a temperamental ingredient to add to your stew. It can quickly spoil an otherwise adequate story, turning it towards the mediocre.
Perhaps the worst offender is twin death since you can see it coming a mile away. But let down death can also be seen in Star Trek ‘red shirts,’ ‘sidekick of the week,’ the ‘old mentor’ who appeared for the first time in the episode where they will die, ditto ‘flame from the past’ (never before ruminated on) suddenly returns only to get gacked.
I think readers expect more from their novels than they do from television. We have to live up to those expectations. If I am going to kill a character I don’t want to treat them like a one episode walk-in. There are solutions. Start them off earlier so readers bond with them more deeply before they get shot, stabbed or shark shanked.
As a Fantasy writer chronic illness seems an obvious go-to for inclusion in stories. The Middle Ages was rife with illness and poor medical care. Permitting medical magic may rob you of some of your best opportunities as a writer. You might still opt for it but it’s probably worth contemplating for at least the time to drink one cup of earl grey if you might be better off with the pox and plague.
Chronic illness isn’t convenient—except in fiction. Demise via a chronic illness shouldn’t fit nicely in a half hour show. So why does it in so many medical themed programs? Not all chronic illness can be treated successfully with current medical techniques—that is a reality that genius doctors should wrestle with. Write characters in with a terminal illness but keep them for a season to cover their demise in depth.
Death shouldn’t be cheap. Death is not a one episode throw away. Unless you are a mercenary soldier in a tough-as-nails tale—and even then a variable time-to-death is probably good for plot and reader engagement. Mercenary soldiers could also get PTSD and have inconvenient intrusive memories of people they’ve known who died randomly. Be creative—even with your bystander mortality. But if it’s a member of the protagonist’s circle of friends or acquaintances who dies I definitely don’t want to shrug it off.
Living Up To Killing Off
Returning to TV—even the monster of the week has more impact than the loss of a life. Those lives are sacrificed to prop up the monster, an attempt to make it a credible threat. To push that monster screenwriters often have them kill some generic nice walk-in who we encounter for a minute or less. We expect that person to die. It feels contrived. As a viewer often the death of an individual I have known for less than a scene pushes me out of the story rather than pulling me in.
That’s worth mulling on, how to overcome it? I think the feeling of contrivance has to do with convenience. If a character is only used for obvious plot advancement then they lack complexity, they don’t become three dimensional, they don’t get under our skin. I want characters to get under my skin, to hook my empathy and pull it into their own breath, skin prickles, fretful preoccupations and face slap surprises.
If that is so then as a writer I have to let my characters weave themselves into the story, integrating with more than one plot point, become unexpected and integral. I need them to become a pillar of the story. When they are weight bearing, when beams and joists from multiple sub-plots depend on them, only then does a death wreck sufficient damage. The carnage should not befall a walk-in but rather a character who carries our hearts in their chests. When death destroys not just a life, but plots and possibilities that could have moved forward, when it wrecks the straight path forward and leaves us lost in the woods—that’s worth writing towards.
War is War
If we’re talking body count and reasonable impact to your protagonists and readers we should probably touch on war.
The arithmetic of heart and hurt often feels off in fiction—but particularly in war. There are several situations that come up in fictional portrayal of war that don’t ring true:
This is war—you don’t have two people die, you don’t have ten people die, you don’t have a disproportionate percentage of less important characters bite the dust while your important peeps escape with nary a scrape. Killing just one of your crew won’t work either—that’s a token, and readers know you’re setting them up for the good guys to grieve and then rally. Real war doesn’t select a plot-convenient token to kill. You’ll need more than one death that hits close to home to bring a reader to the battlefield. A few important and completely unexpected, inconvenient, terrible deaths from team good guy in the mix will help a lot to leaven your tale with the devastating reality of war.
The opposite problem from Token Death—Everyone Dies is an issue because complete annihilation of one side or the other is pretty rare in war.
If it does happen then you need to acknowledge this as a peculiar and dreadful anomaly and give a reason for it. To put this in perspective let’s look at the term “decimated,” we’ve all heard about the losing side of a fray being decimated, but what does that mean? There is some controversy, but one of its definitions is a precise numerical evaluation—it means killing one in ten. The idea being that if you can kill one in ten people on one of the sides of a conflict in a single engagement—they will break and surrender or flee.
Seriously—only one in ten and that is devastating to morale. You can break an army with that. They will run away—they will desert. So it’s pretty rare for you to manage to have that picturesque battlefield where everyone died—or everyone but the hero died. The majority of people from one side—or even both sides—may have fled, but you’ll still have people on that battlefield.
There will be screaming not-dead-yet with gut wounds on the way to sepsis. Medics, civilians, and even fellow soldiers caring for the wounded and trying to extract them. Depending on the battle—warriors from the winning side may be systematically killing enemy wounded. Or perhaps they are taking them prisoner. War isn’t an art film. You don’t get nice scenes with carrion birds and no humans stirring.
Don’t forget the looters. Swords and guns and armor are too valuable to just leave lying around. Looters will often attack and kill other looters to steal their spoils. Looters will slit the throat of a wounded man to unbuckle his damaged breastplate with less distracting thrashing.
Do People Fight to the Last Man?
Sure—when big things are at stake. When they are surrounded. When the enemy will kill or enslave all the women and children if they get past the defenders—yes you can get last stands.
But this is not normative and it doesn’t happen to defend the sanctity of some random hill the enemy dared to set foot on. Most assailing forces would rather not push things to a last stand. They are inconvenient and costly—rarely worth the trouble.
Why Go There Anyway?
Usually the enemy doesn’t want to kill all the women and children—a significant percentage of the value of land is generally the people of that land, continuing to live their lives and being productive in more or less their prior lifestyle—maybe with extra taxes but still, you’ll see a drastic decrease in your conquest profit if you kill all the inhabitants.
Does it still happen sometimes? Yes. Religion, politics, grudges—people can be nasty. Ethnic cleansing does happen. But it doesn’t happen randomly and it doesn’t happen lightly. If it’s in a book why is it there? Is it central to the story? If it’s not then the story had better be strong enough to keep the limelight with something so horrific looming on the sidelines. That’s not easy, so as a writer it seems prudent to think through the premise, storyline, and background conflicts of your world in relation to each other—before writing massacres.
Random Lighthearted Slaughter
Action Films, Thrillers, Fantasy, Science Fiction – all can have this and it can become gratuitous quickly. I admit there are some times that I enjoy it, there is escapism in the shoot-em-up movies or the swashbuckling tales that can be a nice change of pace from our civil, civilized lives. But there does seem to be a difference in flavor between those who set out to write this type of story versus those who inadvertently segue into mass slaughter scenes.
Keeping your reader engaged, and disbelief suspended, can be difficult if the setup is rocky or the transitions too abrupt. Plus, mayhem montages have a purpose—figuring out what yours is before you start writing it gives you a much better chance of achieving your goals. I’ve written several scenes that could fall under the random lighthearted slaughter label—but each one has unique objectives and achieves them with care.
Organic Scale in Slaughter
While I tend to be more of a plotter, I can’t deny the vitality of shocking unexpected mayhem. One thing I would like to explore in an urban fantasy would be the organic variation of workload for crime fighters—even though riots and such can result in increased violence there is also some randomness to when gluts of guts come in.
There’s nothing preventing several independent large scale instigators from occurring simultaneously—and more normative crime wouldn’t cease due to their emergence. There is a different angle in the protagonist whose quest for justice is sidelined in the traditional channels due to problems of greater media interest. Or an overwhelmed crime fighter who can’t juggle it all.
These stories have been explored before, yes—but I think there is something beyond either, that looks to the surging river of events. How we live in a world less static than we frequently pen. I feel a feral breath of vitality in reality that more formulaic plots and pacing are perhaps ill-suited to tap. Not that I’ve gone there either—it’s a bit daunting to pick up a machete and abjure the sun for the unmapped future of Amazon.
Off People Like You Mean It
There are so many options, from unreasonably low mortality rates to unreasonably high that it can leave a writer gnawing their fingernails in dismay delayed choice.
Somehow it feels like there is a single correct course and choosing the wrong approach to mortality will condemn your career. We all find our own way as writers to reconcile ourselves to our choices, not once but many times across the span of years and the books we wrote over them. The choice of one time and place may not carry over to a new work in a new style. Presently I’m leaning towards writing darker deeper books. They aren’t sanitized of death by any means, quite the opposite, but they savor the lush tactile horror of each death rather than merely reveling in headcount. That seems to be working out well.
Will my needs and execution change across my writing career? I sure hope so. I suspect a good lighthearted slaughter romp of a quest might need to be in my future a few books out—if you spend too long in the abyss you can lose your perspective and your readership. Wonder and wry humor are there to heal us both in life and in fiction. I’m not doing my job as a writer of escape literature if I don’t have fun from time to time. Wide emotional range is healthy for humans—writing and reading should stretch those emotions not restrict them to one hue.
Drama Is As Dramatic As You En-Soul It To Be
As writers we have the power to take things beyond the ordinary. That’s the definition of great works. Pick out a few masters to be your personal polestar and equip your expedition to forge ahead on that trajectory. Discovery is beyond the horizon you can see, but it falls in a direction that others have scouted. Make passionate choices—don’t hold back. Write the book of your freshman heart, the book of your inner maniacal mastermind. Kill characters—do it with style.
Fearlessness and fearfulness can both push us to extremes—but if those are the extremes we deliberately chose to pursue then show the world what you can make of them. Before George R.R. Martin we lived in a different world—a decade from now it will be different all over again—be the one to revolutionize death and you’ll be a legend.
I’m waiting for your legendary books.