Honoring the Dead
November is an apt month to discuss death in fiction as it begins with All Saint’s Day on November 1, or as it is called in Spanish El Día de los Muertos. With similar but different roots historically, the European and Central American celebrations both recognize the souls of the departed.
Pre-Christian cultures believed that late fall was a time when the portal to the underworld was permeable. Souls could pass through to visit the living. Europeans who celebrate All Saint’s Day (and All Soul’s Day on November 2nd) view the commemoration as a solemn occasion. People go to church, pray, and light a candle for the souls of loved ones. These northern tributes recall ancient rites of autumn as well as the inevitability of a death-dealing winter.
Further south in Central American where the seasons are reversed, families prepare food, gifts, costumes, various artifacts, jewelry, altars, parades, and dances to honor those who have died. Then, the family goes to the cemetery to decorate the graves, share their memories, and gather for a picnic. Because monarch butterflies migrate from the north to the south during this time, some of the decorations reflect the colorful design of their wings. The winged visitors are thought to carry home the spirits of the dead.
Both traditions are a part of my life in the fall. The monarchs visit my flower garden in Colorado in September. Their black and orange wings complement the waves of purple asters which are in full bloom then. Hundreds of them alight to nibble on the flowers for several days before heading farther south. On all Saint’s Day, I always devote a meditation to the memory of my loved ones who have passed through the veil. I wish them well, telling each one they hold a special place in my heart. If I happen to be visiting a cathedral, I light a candle for each one. Maybe next year, I’ll construct an altar decorated with monarchs to connect my European heritage to my life on the American continent.
In Fiction Someone Must Die
I read once that to write an effective novel, a character must die. How and when depends as much on genre as on the writer’s skill. Recently, I read American Spy, a thriller by Lauren Wilkinson, in which the protagonist, Marie, is in constant danger. Marie knocks off a guy, who has crept into her house in the middle of the night to kill her, then calls the cops. An assassination gone wrong in the first pages of the book is a terrific hook to grab the reader’s attention. In detective novels, a death tends to set up the action which involves the solution to the question of who killed X. It is up to the main protagonist to figure out “whodunit.” In American Spy, we know who killed the intruder, but we don’t know why. The rest of the novel tells Marie’s fascinating story.
In family sagas, the passing of a family member may be the impetus to the action that occurs, or it may simply be a function of setting up the mood of the story. In a tragedy, the main character or characters and possibly others will die. In romances, a character may die, but never the lovers—readers expect a happy ending. Of course, in a comedy, no one dies, they might just get egg on their face instead.
Death as a Plot Device
If death is used to move the plot forward, the death must have significance for the protagonist. How the protagonist reacts to the death is an important marker in the development of the story. For example, the protagonist might transition from one state of mind to another—euphoria to depression, for example. Or, as in The Wizard of Oz, when the wicked witch dies, her demise is the key to winding up the plot and sending Dorothy home as a wiser and happier girl.
Protagonists don’t usually die. But, if a protagonist’s life or death is in question, it could be used as the backbone of the plot such as a cancer victim’s story that ends with a miracle cure.
Death as Mood
If death functions to set a somber mood, it may serve simply as a background for the action of the plot. Think of the scenes from movies where the family is attending a funeral and something happens. The backdrop of the funeral creates a solemn or melancholy mood; the action pulls the characters out of it. If the mood affects the main character, it may be used to influence the characters’ emotional arc as well as the plot of the story.
Death as Symbol
When death is used as a symbol, it may embody a threat, a skull and crossbones type of effect, a finality, a fear, or a weapon. For example, Hades threat to Orpheus is that if he turns to look at Eurydice as he leads her from the Underworld, she will be lost to him forever. He does and she is. In a more contemporary story, Harry Potter carries on his forehead a scar shaped like a bolt of lightning—a symbol that he narrowly escaped death when He Who Will Not Be Named offed his parents.
In 19th century novels, it was common for the heroine to die at the end of the story, as in the case of Madame Bovary. When I was studying literature at university, the number of heroines who died at the end of books, often by suicide, depressed me. It always seemed to me that their death was a not so subtle threat used to control women readers—or more personally to keep me from developing any dangerous ideas about life’s possibilities.
Death and My Writing
As I ponder the various uses and aspects of death in fiction, I wonder how to use it effectively in my own novels. One thing I don’t want to do is write is about a heroine who dies à la 19th century heroine. I want my female characters to survive and triumph. The deaths that affect my heroines will need to enhance the action, not end it. It is a challenge to figure out whether to use death as a plot driver or as the turning point in my stories.
Writing Goals for 2019
This year my goals are to:
1. Edit my first novel into a coherent manuscript by December 7, 2019:
During the month of October, I worked on several chapters. The more I learn about writing the more critical of my own writing I become. My manuscript is not yet a coherent novel. I still have work to do.
2. Complete a draft of my second novel by December 7, 2019:
This past month, I reworked three chapters. As I worked, I realized that I am going to need an omniscient point of view to tell the story appropriately. I had thought that I could tell it through the eyes of one of the characters, but it is not working out.
I also managed to edit a short story I have been working on. I sent it off to a friend for feedback on the accuracy of certain details.
3. Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2019:
Today is November 7, 2019. This is my 11th blog of 2019. It is my 23rd blog since I started setting goals for my writing process. Since I often don’t know what I think until I write it down, writing the blog has helped me sort through my use of various modalities. Going over my goals regularly reminds that I need to get to work on what I promised myself I would do. Goal completion takes focus because life simply happens. Some days I feel like working, other days I don’t, but I force myself to work on something each day, regardless of my mood.
4. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:
October is a busy month for me because my husband opens his art studio to the public through Boulder’s Open Studios event for three weekends. It is fun to see the amazement on visitors’ faces when they step into his studio. Serving as the artist’s assistant keeps me busy, thus it is hard to concentrate on my own work. However, I did manage to attend my regular writers’ meetings.
On October 6, I attended the Boulder Writers Alliance book group for writers. The group discussed Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. It is an intriguing novel with an idiosyncratic protagonist.
On October 16, I attended the Boulder Writers Alliance session on Write to Publish, Publish to Sell. The session was led by Nathan Lowell whom I know through the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers community. Nathan writes science fiction. In his discussion about marketing, he explained that the best way to market fiction is through personal networks of friends who write in your genre. This is something I am going to have to work on—developing a network of authors who write in the genre I am targeting. Perhaps I will make creating such a network one of my goals for next year.
2 thoughts on “Death in Fiction”
Hi Laura, Excellent writing! I enjoyed all the interesting colorful details, your thoughtful in sites into death rituals in different cultures, and the importance of death to a fictional novel. I admire your dedication to your writing, and your ability to keep your goals. I look forward to reading your novels!
Sharon, Thank you so much for your supportive comments! I hope your own writing is going well. At the moment, I feel as though I am spinning at full speed into 2020!