I’m posting this slightly ahead of schedule as I have Friday designated as a shopping day to acquire a new writers’ wardrobe. Wearing pyjamas and onesies to write is comfortable, but not great if I want to go to the corner shop or take a stroll through the park, and I have it on good authority that the best combination of comfort and style for the modern lady writer is the dress-over-leggings-lifehack. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Before we get stuck in, please note that this blog entry contains spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Harry Potter series, and A Song of Ice and Fire.
I’m currently wrestling with the plot of my novel The Silvergreen Sea, in particular trying to work out how to depict death and the afterlife. As ever, the freedom of the fantasy genre can be both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, you can invent your own version of an afterlife, ghosts, resurrection, revenants, whatever you feel like. But if you make it too easy to come back, or to communicate with the dead, then you can blunt the impact of character deaths and end up ruining your own story.
I saw a good example of this when relaxing with a movie (a writer is never entirely off duty…). On Monday night, I brought myself fully up to date with the Marvel Cinematic Universe by watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It was pretty good, although not quite what I was expecting: it’s less a comic-book superhero movie, more a paranoid spy thriller which wouldn’t feel out of place in the Bourne series.
But one very comic-book thing about the film is its flippant approach to death. Hundreds of nameless and apparently bloodless soldiers are killed in a ‘gun goes bang bad guy goes down’ fashion. The only death treated as if it’s of any significance is that of Nick Fury (played by Samuel L Jackson), who bleeds a bit, and even gets a tombstone engraved with a quotation from Ezekiel 25:17. But then he pops up again, apparently fine, despite being pretty comprehensively shot up by the eponymous Winter Soldier. And, frankly, I felt disappointed.
Why? Did I hate the character? Not at all. I just felt cheated that the film tried to have both cake and death, yanking on our emotions by killing him off, but still keeping him alive for the sequel. This isn’t an isolated incident. Superhero comics are so notorious for doing this that ‘comic book death’ has its own Wikipedia page, which notes that apparently the only permanent deaths in comics are Bucky and Uncle Ben. Except that the Winter Soldier turns out to be a somehow-still-alive Bucky (the Captain’s WWII buddy). So I guess it’s just Uncle Ben.
Comic books aren’t the only medium to pull this trick, of course: George RR Martin, for all his bloodiness, has resurrected or fake-killed so many characters that it’s no surprise most fans are dubious that, despite being thoroughly stabbed in A Dance With Dragons, Jon Snow is actually dead, or at any rate will stay dead.
In my view, it’s a thoroughly problematic trope: it cheapens death within the story, and it’s unkind on bereaved readers who could share characters’ grief and gain catharsis through it, but don’t have access to a handy resurrection spell. One of the most affecting parts of the Harry Potter series, imho, comes at the end of The Order of the Phoenix when Harry realises that, whatever he does, he can’t bring Sirius back, or talk to him ‘beyond the veil’. That’s something that resonates with an audience. As an author, you need get your readers in the gut, and putting some death in your tale is an excellent way to reach some of the most powerful human feelings – but not if you pull its sting with your fantasy shenanigans.
This then, is the question I’m currently trying to resolve: in my setting, the (non-hellish) afterlife is definitely real, so how do I keep the sting in death? Tricky. But it turns out that The Winter Soldier, as well as showing the problem, shows the solution. We see glimpses of how Bucky is brainwashed into a ruthless killing machine; and it doesn’t look pleasant.* It’s the same solution Martin used for Theon Greyjoy, and what JK Rowling did to Neville Longbottom’s parents.
It’s quite a simple solution, really: if killing a character isn’t quite going to do the job, just subject them to a fate worse than death. Problem solved. So that’s my way forward as an author: as soon as I’ve bought a couple of new frocks, it’s time to think up some horrific fates-worse-than-death and then inflict them on my imaginary friends. What a great job.
*I’ve also been reading an excellent if rather harrowing fan fiction which imagines the process in detail: http://archiveofourown.org/works/1815529/chapters/3897427 (trigger warnings for violence, rape, torture, attempted suicide, mental illness, brainwashing, everything really).