When you’re writing fiction, everything’s made up, right?
Actually, that’s sort of impossible. There’s really no possible way to write about something completely made-up, with absolutely no derivation whatsoever. Writing fiction is, to some degree, less about fabrication than it is about spinning. Any great fiction writer will tell you that the basis of fiction is truth, and this can easily be seen in big-time works that have stood the test of time, as it were, such as Plath’s The Bell Jar, which anyone with a hair of knowledge about Plath can tell you is practically an extended diary entry with some fictional circumstances.
So how does this relate to writing about death? Character deaths are big parts of a large percentage of fiction, and handling them involves some basis in understanding death as a human being. So what do you do if you’ve never experienced the death of someone close? Or what may be more relevant, what do you do if you’ve never experienced death in the same way that one of your characters has?
Deaths in books are absolutely essential to nail (no pun intended). It’s all too easy to generalize a sentiment in what can often become a medium for stock emotion and convenient plot twists. Never generalize a death, as its effects are far-reaching and elicit different responses from different people. If you’ve experienced this, you know how it affected you, which is valuable but not the only step in creating a realistic death.
If you’re putting a death into a story or book, the first step is remembering that this will affect more than just the deceased, and beyond that more than just the character directly linked to said unfortunate character. Never use this as a simple means of moving a plot or supplying an “unexpected” twist. Consider how this works in real life: it’s a big event for everyone, not just a newspaper headline. This is complex, so treat it accordingly.
Second, make sure you completely understand your surviving characters. Are they stoic? Did they have unspoken words on their chest to say to the deceased? Are they spiritual? Did they have a background in religion that they left and are insecure in their beliefs to the point that this would make them reassess their spirituality? There are myriad effects on people to consider given their history, relationships, and personalities.
This is the most important part of writing about death: completely understanding the nature of characters you invented (or borrowed from your life) so you can accurately write about their responses. Don’t just stop at stock character personalities (“Oh, he’s a stoic, blue-collar guy, so he’ll just move on right away.”), as real people are much deeper than the personality traits we like to attach to them. No one is one-dimensional. Don’t treat your characters like they are.
The next phase is plotting characters accordingly. Once you understand the complexities of their emotional responses, write their actions accordingly. Deep-rooted emotional effects will likely manifest themselves in more than one way, so take care to consider that something may have changed in a character in a big way and he/she may no longer behave the way he/she did before.
Even if the character doesn’t change, consider that he/she will likely still have this on his/her mind. This is why the final phase is taking care to remember the event. I don’t mean make a memorial, I just mean don’t just let your characters move on ten pages later as if nothing happened. If this was an important character, even a disliked one, they will not forget it. It may not crop up significantly in their actions, but don’t let this be a plot device that you move away from and never reference again.
To put all this simply and to wrap around to the initial point, keep your fiction true to life. If you want your characters to act in non-realistic ways in response, earn that by justifying it in characterization. Either way, always keep a root in reality in your fiction.
Michelle Johnson has a keen interest in addressing grief, bringing her to write for and work with FulhamFunerals.com.au – Funeral Directors Adelaide and various publications dealing with death, funerals and the grieving process.