This is a topic all writers handle in different ways. Writers are known for is killing characters. Some writers even seem to make a career of it, yes, I’m looking at you Mr. Martin. Death has certainly occurred in several of my stories and I have been threatened upon pain of death if I killed particular characters. In one my first stories published, “Birds of a Feather”, a teacher friend and my editor were both very pleased with the obvious depth of relationship between the main character and his mule. As far as we know the mule survived.
Sometimes, dying might have been a better option. In a gothic horror/romance, this was my most Lovecraftian story, a young lady was meant to be a sacrifice. My editor pleaded and cajoled for me to allow her to live. Yes, she survived. But sometimes, dying might have been preferable to her new quality of life. And yes after the re-write, my editor agreed, the young lady would have been better off dead.
As a writer, part of making the characters come alive for the reader is in making them relatable. For that to happen most of us turn to our own experiences. There have been deaths in my life, any of us who life very long on this Earth will have the experience of a pet, a friend, loved one, or other family member passing from this mortal coil. One death which struck me particularly hard was loss of a pet.
When we met, my partner had two cats. Both have died during the nine years we have been together. One was an older orange tabby named Scutter; the other a tiger-striped named Cheshire. Scutter and I bonded strongly over six years until her stroke. Her quality of life dropped instantly and within forty-eight hours we decided to euthanize her. It was my privilege for her to curl in my lap as two drugs were administered. The first was a muscle relaxant meant to slow her heart and ease any pain, its effect was unmistakable. Within a minute she relaxed in a way that way only a cat is able too. Being a part of my life daily, I knew she was getting older and had begun to endure physical ailments, yet in the daily progression of aging I had not realized how much had her physical being had deteriorated. It dawned upon me how long it had been since I heard her purr; my heart broke when she did. In those seconds of relaxation, I appreciated just how much of a struggle daily life had become for her. For the briefest of moments, in full selfishness, I did not want the second drug administered. The wonderful and caring veterinarian administered the second drug, the one to stop her heart. I caressed her until death came. It was as if one moment she was there, the next she wasn’t. I recall saying she was gone and the veterinarian saying it usually took longer. She listened for a heartbeat. There was none. My friend was gone.
I called the office and reported out sick. I cried. For two days I cried a lot. My partner and I both did. When we give to something with a lifespan shorter than ours, and it gives back to you unconditionally, losing that bond can be a devastating blow. Three years later we have our moments of what has become known as a “small orange sad”.
That is one of the well springs I draw upon when I wrote about the death of a character. Feeling numb, maybe a bit of shock at the loss, and how I related to people and I try to imbue my characters with some of it.
Sometimes Death is handled by being a character. Death has been a favorite of mine since Ingmar Berman’s “The Seventh Seal”. Terry Pritchett’s character of Death is one I always enjoy. Truly trying to understand the poor mortals he so meticulously watches over. Really, Piers Anthony’s personification of Death from “On a Pale Horse”, a part of the Incarnations of Immortality series, where Death is a job, is probably my favorite. After reading it, I wanted his job.
Death, the character, allows the writer to create a little distance in the narrative. Perhaps it allows us to see or show a different, maybe more objective, perspective on a situation. Death can be many things in this way: a friend, a hunter, a businessman, travel agent, or teacher as needed for story. Often personifying Death gives the freedom for a narrator to be present, to alleviate or create a fear factor.
In one of his essays, H.P. Lovecraft wrote, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”. What, pray tell, is more unknown than death? Religions, not touting any one over any other, all have an answer regarding death. Some people seek out a deity when it is believed death is imminent.
Whether a writer treats Death as part of a life cycle, a force of nature, a person, or an agent of fear one thing is certain. Death is now and will likely always be one of my favorite plot devices.
Thank you for reading,
P.S. One of my goals is to write everyday. I did begin this on 3/16/2017 though currently there is an illness in the house which cause unavoidable delays. Flash Friday will be posted later in the day.