Death in Storytelling

I, like many people, love stories. I read books, watch films and television shows, play games, listen to music – all sorts. There are stories everywhere. Growing up, they obviously had a big effect because now I’m an aspiring writer.

One thing I’ve never really considered until recently was death in the stories we read, watch, play, listen etc. It’s always there, sometimes in a small way and others a lot more significantly – even when I was younger. I never had a reason to question it before but now I’m beginning to wonder; are we numb to death in our stories?

Oh, there will be some spoilers coming up but nothing too recent.

Death isn’t unusual

I spent some time reliving a few childhood memories. Purely academic of course, but I found that death is all around us. Despite this, no one raises an eye. Remember, I’m particularly fond of the sci-fi and fantasy genres but death isn’t limited to these subjects. Maybe I expect it more in adult stories than I do children or young adult fiction but nevertheless, it’s there.

Should this be allowed?

Well, it already is, although there are rules to follow, it seems. In adult fiction, there are fewer to follow – and less consequences if the rules are broken. For younger audiences, there are two main rules I’ve identified. Not everything follows this and there probably more but these are two I’ve noticed the most.

Firstly, the death has to mean something. It can’t be an afterthought; it is used to teach a character something – even if it takes a while to do so. It acts as motivation, a turning point, a way to break and rebuild. Ultimately, this is a popular or well-loved character; a mentor, guardian or parent, for example, but not limited to them. It allows characters to reach their ‘coming of age’ stage and then go on to surpass them.

Alternatively, deaths are used to indicate scale. They are minor characters; soldiers in a war, brief acquaintances, villains or monsters that heroes must defeat to complete a quest. They can be likened to an obstacle, wall or challenge that has to be overcome. As we never invest in them, or are made to think of them as evil, their deaths are seen as insignificant. It’s only looking back that I realised just how many there have been.

Beloved franchises

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

This happens a lot, so I’m going to list some examples. Again, if you haven’t read/seen/played any of these, spoilers are coming. However, I’ve chosen older titles so don’t blame me.

Harry Potter. I grew up with these books. My feelings are mixed but that’s another story. Harry’s parents are dead before the books begin but throughout the series, key characters die. Sirius, Dumbledore, Snape and Lupin are core characters to Harry and help develop his character. Voldemort is the villain to overcome but wizards, witches, Death Eaters and muggles all die throughout the later books. Pretty grim, really.

Even the Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t escaped. Avengers Assemble killed off a very important character, popular with other characters and audiences alike. This was

Chaos Walking Trilogy

Chaos Walking Trilogy

rectified later, to mixed reactions from what I gathered, but it was a shocking moment. Again, it followed the first rule. Plenty of deaths, both innocent, ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys.’

Star Wars. Almost every film has an example of this. A New Hope saw Obi Wan die, while in the most recent film, The Force Awakens, Han Solo bites the bucket. The first example is a turning point for Luke Skywalker while Han’s demise will have repercussions we’re yet to fully experience. With war being a common theme, you can see death in all seven films.

I could list some hugely shocking moments here, and I may well do in the future but not tonight. I’d like to point you to Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking Trilogy as a great example, though. Gamers will probably know the Final Fantasy VII example, which is still a powerful moment almost two decades later. The list is endless. Maybe I will sort something later.

And then there’s A Song of Ice and Fire

ASOIAF - A Game of Thrones

ASOIAF – A Game of Thrones

I left this until the end because it’s one of the most recent, mainstream and popular series around. Unfortunately, that applies more to the TV show Game of Thrones rather than the books. While I could happily and easily dive into THAT debate, we’ll leave it to one side for now.

Death is probably the only thing you can expect in both the show and the books. No one seems to be safe, from minor characters to major, popular to unpopular. George R. R Martin has done well in making readers invest in the characters, even the ones you don’t like, before pulling the rug from under you and killing them.

The series hasn’t finished so we don’t know how it will end but it’s one of the most popular franchises at the moment where death is so prevalent. The deaths are also epic in a lot of cases, which makes them stand out. When I say epic, I mean brutal. Shock tactics galore.

Does this numb us further? That’s something to think on but some people don’t mind it, while others hate it and then the third group love it. It’s always going to divide opinion but that’s just one of the great things about stories.

Picking Your Audience: How Early Should You Do It?

I’ve often wondered about this. Some of you may be sitting there (or standing, depending on what you’re doing) and screaming at me for even asking such a daft question but is it really that silly?

Identifying your audience early shapes the story

Any story begins as an idea. An acorn, if you will, that will grow into (hopefully) a grand old tree. We, the writers, are the ones nurturing this growth from start to finish – and sometimes beyond, even if no one knows about it! It’s rarely a case of ‘this is my idea, no it’s time to get writing’ although even I find that hard to resist.

There’s the research element, looking at similar stories across a range of mediums and the market itself and the planning stages too, from character creation to settings and more. Then there’s the audience. What audience do you want to write for, is it suitable for your story and how can you ensure the two go hand in hand?

These are not easy questions and you may find yourself compromising in one way or another. The risk here is that you may become disillusioned with the entire project because it isn’t what you originally wanted to write, or for who you wanted to write to. That may mean you need to change one aspect to ensure that enthusiasm isn’t going to wane at any point.

The biggest benefit I find working this way is that it gives you a clear goal right from the outset of the process. Some people need that end goal in sight but it can take time nail it down so don’t think you can get past this in just a day.

Your story and writing style determines the audience

The flipside of this, however, is that I firmly believe some writers are better suited to different genres and audiences than others. I’m going to use J.K. Rowling as a partial example; Harry Potter is a phenomenal series but other works, largely adult fiction, hasn’t taken off. I’m not the biggest fan of her writing style, which is down to what I like to read and how I write, but there has to be a reason for that, surely?

I’m not saying she should write more Harry Potter, but maybe that audience is something to consider? We’ll see.

We can all write for different audiences, in different ways and styles but there are some that suit us better, that we feel more comfortable with and everyone, apart from the very best writers, will produce better work in their comfort zone. Even the ‘best’ will be better in their favourite zones but they have found a way to reach a high standard, a believable standard from a reader’s point of view, even outside it.

It’s something I’ve put a focus on over the last few years, writing outside of this comfort zone, focusing on different audiences. I won’t let many people see this stuff right now but maybe one day, I’ll get it to a level that I can be happy with. I’m proud of myself for trying and it does teach me a lot. It’s also why I can understand that some stories and styles just don’t work together.

Some rules are made to be broken but others, not so much.

Conclusion

Like with a lot of topics to do with writing, creative processes and indeed, the Arts in general, it’s all down to personal preference. I don’t think it’s easy to say “I’m going to write a young adult novel” and have it happen – at least not all the time. The project may start out with that intention but if you aren’t able to adapt along the way, I don’t believe that it will get anywhere.

Plans are great but we, as writers, change throughout the writing process. Almost as much, if not more, than the story we’re writing. Another part of this, is also understanding the markets and how they evolve as well. Everything’s connected.

It’s certainly an interesting discussion but not one that’s likely to be settled any time soon. However, that is it from me for 2015. It’s been a year full of ups and downs and I’m going to take a few weeks off over the holidays to recharge and to get ready for 2016. So, whatever your plans and beliefs are, and whatever you have planned over the coming weeks, enjoy it and I’ll see you in January.

Ciao!