How Should Death Be Treated in Fiction?

As someone who suffers from bipolar depression and has often been suicidal, I think about death possibly more frequently than most. And when I say think about it, I mean really ponder it – what it must feel like to breathe a last breath, to beat a last heartbeat, and then the moments of fading consciousness as the body fights its hardest to prevent a total shutdown on a cellular level. After all, dying is a process – it isn’t instant.

To quote Depeche Mode, death is everywhere; we see it daily on the news, and in real life with the crushed squirrels and battered deer on the side of the road. We cause it – deliberately and inadvertently – when we swat at a mosquito, or a wasp. But we only ever experience it once, which is why it remains such a mystery; no one can really tell what it’s like to die, because – to quote The Crow – there ain’t no coming back.

And as art is a reflection of life, and death is a part of life, death finds its way into the stories we tell with an almost inescapable certainty. Whether the story is The Lion King or Pulp Fiction, there is hardly a tale in the world that doesn’t deal with death in some way – whether explicitly, implicitly, or at least by threatening characters with death as a kind of ultimate stake.

In most stories where death is a central plot point, the deaths in question are typically premature – the result of violence or illness. These deaths, of course, carry the heaviest emotional weight – at least, when the character is some form of protagonist. These deaths are usually treated with a measure of respect, dignity and gravitas.

When the character is a villain, however, things become different. Low-level goons are often offed with a kind of casual indifference, whilst end-bosses are treated to a typically spectacular death, glorifying their demise as something to be celebrated in all its gore. The 2012 film Dredd is a picture-perfect epitome of this: throughout the movie quite literally hundreds of people are killed in a variety of inventive and bloody ways, but nothing tops the two-minute slow-motion swan-dive from a 200-story window that demolishes – in exceptionally graphic detail – the movie’s head honcho, Ma-Ma.

Evidently, there are a lot of ways to treat a character’s death, from understated and emotional to disbelievingly violent and visually spectacular, and some of this depends on the nature of the character and the nature of the story. But what defines the appropriateness of the realism, so to speak, of a character’s demise? And how is realism defined, when – as noted above – no one really knows what it’s like to die in the first place?

To this end, I think the intended audience is an important consideration in the description, detail and realism of the death in question. If you’re writing for six-year-olds, it’s entirely appropriate to deal with the topic, but perhaps in a softer way than if you’re writing for sixteen-year-olds.

But even for an older audience, it’s important to understand the living experiences that the majority of them have gone through. Very few six-year-olds will have experienced death first-hand. Sixteen-year-olds, on the other hand, may well of witnessed the passing of a grandparent, or a beloved family pet. And a sixty-year-old will have likely experienced numerous deaths in their lifetime. And the method of describing a fictional death depends on the sensibility and general understanding of the target audience.

When I started writing The Redemption of Erâth, I knew there were going to be deaths of important characters. Being that the story is intended as a kind of suitable-for-all-ages tale, I wanted to treat these deaths as truly meaningful, impactful and important, without glorifying the detail of the characters’ passing. The first major death, a teenage girl, is described in passing as an arrow piercing her heart. The second, an invented fantasy being, is described in more detail with gashes to her throat and sliver blood spattered about. But in both of these cases, the focus was not on the detail of the death, but the emotional impact on the remaining characters.

In my alter-ego’s young adult novel, 22 Scars, there are only two character deaths; a young girl who dies from leukemia, described from afar through the journal entries of her friend, and a teenager who dies in a car crash – only the aftermath of which is shown. There are a number of other ‘violent’ instances – self-harm, rape and abuse – but the detail of these scenes was again written with a young adult audience in mind: I don’t shy away, but nor do I try to glorify either the abuse or the suffering. My goal was simply to describe the reality of these terrible ordeals; I wouldn’t anticipate a ten-year-old reading it.

It’s a fine line to toe; passing death off as both easy to deal and easy to experience is in some ways an injustice to the reality of dying. To see waves of bad guys mown down with machine guns makes it seem like death is a quick pop and then you fall down and go to sleep. To watch a teenage girl slit her wrists and bleed out in a bathtub (reference: Thirteen Reasons Why) is gory and off-putting, but also belies the difficulty of such a scenario – it is not easy to cut that deep, nor does it typically result in a quick and quiet death.

The advent of cellphones and live-streaming has made it unfortunately easy to watch a real person die, and anyone whose stood by and watched will tell you: death is not easy. The body will fight to the last cell to remain alive, even as shock sets in and the victim loses consciousness. People don’t just fall down when shot; they remain alive for minutes afterward. They move around. They try desperately to stay alive.

To what extent should the realities of death be described in fiction? Is there a line between realistic sensitivity and glorification? Death will always be around, but how should it be treated in fiction?

There may be no easy answer – but I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. How do you think death should be treated in fiction?

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2 thoughts on “How Should Death Be Treated in Fiction?

  1. Good article! As far as fiction goes, I’d say that each death must have some sort of purpose, and must be characterized in such a way as to emphasize that purpose. For example, let’s say you have two main characters who are emotionally close. One meets a violent end of some sort. As the story moves forward, the surviving protagonist will, in a good story, grow as a person as a result of his compatriot’s death. Regarding the casual treatment of, say, stormtrooper or orc deaths, stories usually care more about describing the character who kills them, since the killer typically does so in the name of some ideal of goodness. For example, the purpose of countless orc deaths at the hands of the righteous men of Gondor and Rohan in the Lord of the Rings is to show humans resisting absolute evil, not to ponder the inherent morality of killing. If Tolkien’s intent had been to examine, say, orc suffering, he would have written more from the orcs’ perspective – but he was instead focused on the archetypal battle between good and evil.

    One thing really struck me, though. You specified that *premature* deaths are the most dramatized sort of death in fiction. And this makes sense. My opinion is that seeing a character die before he or she “ought” to activates a sense of cosmic injustice and distress in most readers. I do wonder, though – has anyone ever written a passionate scene where a beloved character dies of old age? I’m sure it has been done before, but it’s certainly not common, at least in my experience. But it sounds like a worthy exercise.

    Once again, thanks for the article, and good luck with your fiction.

    1. Interestingly, I forgot about the true second death in my book series – the main character’s grandfather, who dies of old age. When I first wrote it, the book section that includes the young girl’s death and the old man’s death was called “Two Tragedies”. The feedback I got was that the grandfather’s death, whilst sad, was not a tragedy. I renamed the section “Loss”, to a much better reception.

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