Literature is a caricature of life.
Everything gets a dose of exaggeration: love, tragedy, humor. I mean, I’m willing to bet that most of the people reading this blog have never taken a dagger to the heart over love, and come up with most of their wittiest retorts in the shower. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not calling you boring, but for every kiss in the rain or life-defining street fight there are hours of sleep. Cooking. Watching television.
If art was ever a mirror to life, it’s a funhouse mirror, enlarging some bits and shrinking others. Which makes sense, right? I don’t need to read a book that describes a good night’s sleep; I want to hear about whatever led the sleeper to that exhaustion. Writers take the themes of life and put them under a magnifying glass, expanding on emotion and connection and letting us make what we will of their findings. It’s beautiful. As a new writer, it’s insanely difficult. And as a longtime reader, it’s insanely important.
Anyway, today I’m going to talk about the single universal theme of life. Death. It’s been kind of around me lately, so of course I’ve been thinking about it from an author’s standpoint.
This blog post might be a little morbid.
Death in Literature
The funhouse mirror of literary death tends to lean to two extremes.
On one hand, we have the trope of immortality: characters are covered with “plot armor” that gets them out of impossible scenarios, brought back from death, or simply made immortal to begin with. Making your main characters impervious to death makes sense. We like main characters. We don’t want to see them go away. We don’t like it when people die.
On the other hand, we have the trope of the meaningful death: a character dies in a huge dramatic way. Sometimes for a sacrifice, sometimes killed by the antagonists. This trope makes sense too. I mean, no one wants to read a book where the character dies abruptly of thirst halfway through the book. That’s boring.
Don’t get me wrong, real-life examples of these tropes exist. Martyrs and dramatic deaths are a dime a dozen, and I can find plenty of examples of plot armor. But the fact is that being an interesting person with a fascinating life does not mean you’re incapable of slipping in the shower or stepping in front of a fire truck.
I linked to a video earlier on in this post that has a fantastic description of death done poorly. I like the video so much that I’m going to link it here, again: Max Landis on why the death of Superman destroyed death in graphic novels. In a nutshell, no superhero in any storyline had died up until that point. They were immortal and perfect. His death gave him more than a flaw, it gave him mortality. This huge connection to humanity.
And then they brought him back.
And death in comic books just broke. It no longer has meaning. Everyone is fair game to come back from the dead. Whether or not you’re a reader of comics, this has affected you in some way or another. Everyone is familiar with some derivation of the phrase “But I thought you were dead!”
Yeah. Superman’s death was so poorly-done that we’re still feeling the literary effects.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. One of my favorites, but it’s not one of his well-known plays. They don’t teach it in school, and for a good reason. I’m pretty sure Titus was actually written by a time-travelling Quentin Tarantino.
It’s such a bloodbath that the title character ends up in hysterical laughter over it (right before he bakes a couple people into pies).
And because of that, death becomes meaningless here too. It’s like saying a word over and over again until it sounds like nothing. You just become immune. And while that’s a message in its own right, it’s a hard one to connect to. The author ends up taking a basic connection of the human experience and turning it into something we simply cannot understand without experiencing it.
And yet, here’s the thing about those tropes: they aren’t bad. They’re just something to be aware of. Don’t avoid them so far that you become a throwaway joke in a Douglas Adams novel, but don’t stick to them so much as to be predictable. The best books have meaning, and going too far to either side of the spectrum dilutes that meaning.
The hardest part of this is that life very rarely follows this rule.
I have been fortunate enough to know some amazing characters in my life. Heroes, really. Men who I would have bet money on going out in a blaze of glory. People I still would bet money on. But a sense of narrative stops no one from passing away in a hospital bed somewhere.
Which is a good thing, of course. The reward of a full life is a peaceful death. But there’s a part of me that’s always bought into the idea of a grand narrative. For some reason I’ve never been able to shake that. My goal in life has always been to live a life worth writing about.
This post is probably a little disjointed, but that’s all right. It’s a disjointed sort of topic.
I guess the takeaway is this:
We write what we know, but we write it through a lens. We write it as we feel it should be, not as it is. The trick is to write it in a way that doesn’t alienate those with different experiences. The relatives of a Darwin Award winner may feel discomfort at the idea of a noble death, and the dying may envy our fictional immortals.
That’s okay. That’s the goal.
What you don’t want is for them to write it off as unrealistic. You don’t want them to feel nothing.
The point is to make people think.