This week: Death and DyingEdited by: Robert Waltz
More Newsletters By This Editor
1. About this Newsletter
2. A Word from our Sponsor
3. Letter from the Editor
4. Editor's Picks
5. A Word from Writing.Com
6. Ask & Answer
7. Removal instructions
While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die.
-Leonardo da Vinci
...in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.
No, I don't mean your own, though it's sometimes a good idea to do so. I mean the concept itself. Death has at least two meanings: the act of dying, and the state of being dead. The former lasts a short time, even if you consider that the process starts as soon as we're born; the latter, well, perhaps its span is an eternity.
And before we're born, we don't exist; are we dead then too?
Beliefs and rituals surrounding death depend on one's culture. One of the traps we should avoid as writers is to project our own culture on our fantasy worlds - either implicitly, by not considering other options, or explicitly, by making our cultural values "right" and others "wrong." This extends to the attitudes and practices of death.
In this world, death is one of the few certainties - as noted by Ben Franklin in the quote above. In fantasy, though - death isn't a certainty. One of the most common tropes in fantasy (and its cousins, including science fiction) is the idea of the eternal, the undying. Another is of coming back from the dead. Yet another involves the undead - zombies, ghouls, ghosts, maybe vampires, and so on. And that's not even touching on the descriptions of the various states known as the afterlife; even the earliest works of fantasy describe some sort of life continuing beyond death.
One of the great things about fantasy writing is that we can explore these ideas, which serve to help define the parameters of our own existence. But sometimes, the consequences are glossed over, or not considered at all. For instance, if you know for a fact that the dead could rise again as skeletons or zombies, why wouldn't your culture practice cremation exclusively? I'm not saying they would, necessarily, but there would have to be a reason.
Or take the fairly common theme in fantasy literature about having more than one sentient races in contact with each other, where one of them lives a very long time, and the other has the lifespan we're used to. Why wouldn't the latter culture, in its jealousy, attempt to destroy the former - or vice-versa, as a protective measure? Again, not saying they would, but it would be a very human kind of thing to do.
Consider also cultures from our own world - the Egyptians with their obsession on the afterlife, or the Norse and their beliefs about battle. Other cultures do their best to deliberately forget the dead, concentrating instead on the living, or so I've heard, in contrast to our emphasis on remembering them. Even among humans, ideas of the circumstances surrounding death vary widely; how much more diverse would be the beliefs of nonhuman cultures?
So think about it. Don't just take your own cultural attitudes and project them on the ones you create; come up with new ones. At the very least, it helps you to understand your own biases, and perhaps opens the eyes of your readers as well.
Some works of fantasy concerning death:
Submit an item for consideration in this newsletter!
Have an opinion on what you've read here today? Then send the Editor feedback! Find an item that you think would be perfect for showcasing here? Submit it for consideration in the newsletter!
Don't forget to support our sponsor!
Last time, in "Battle" , I talked about fighting in fantasy stories.
brom21 : Thanks for the NL. One thing I've told is not open up a story with a battle. I've had at least one case where it was told it is cliche. What do you think?
As with all such writing advice, you should ignore it if you need to. One suggestion I'd have is if you are going to open with a battle, one way to get the reader's attention immediately is to focus on a primary character's perspective. And remember, every cliche was once profound wisdom.
And that's it for me for August! See you next month. Until then,
To stop receiving this newsletter, click here for your newsletter subscription list. Simply uncheck the box next to any newsletter(s) you wish to cancel and then click to "Submit Changes". You can edit your subscriptions at any time.