Death, where is thy sting?

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.

The Winter Soldier in one of his more friendly moods

The Winter Soldier in one of his more friendly moods

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).

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The Trouble with Targaryens

This blog post contains spoilers for Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

So my novel writing hasn’t quite been proceeding at the pace I would ideally like, and HBO is to blame. I am currently in a froth of excitement about Game of Thrones season 3, and have been spending a lot of precious time in re-watching the first two series on DVD to bring myself back up to speed with events – since it boasts a plot of such Byzantine complexity that even someone who has already read the books (twice) can struggle to keep up with who everyone is and what they are all doing. I have been enjoying the show more second time around, perhaps because I had forgotten a lot of the details of the books, so I am less bothered about things like the precise identity of all the members of the Kingsguard. It has some flaws, admittedly – the most distracting one being the large amount of ‘sexposition’, leaving Ros the pros the best-informed woman in Westeros. But overall it is very well scripted, acted and filmed. And I love the credit sequence showing the locations as little clockwork machines.

Many fans reckon they are actually aunt and nephew. But hey, don't they look hot together?

Many fans reckon they are actually aunt and nephew. But hey, don’t they look hot together?

But, if I’m perfectly honest with myself, I have to admit that the best thing about the television show is the prospect that it might plausibly catch up with the fantasy book series on which it is based. A Song of Ice and Fire has been going for about two decades now and shows no signs of ending any time soon. Author George R. R. Martin (nothing to do with The Beatles) has claimed there will be seven books in total, of which he’s currently writing the sixth, but since he previously claimed it would be a trilogy, and then revised that to a pentalogy before settling on the heptalogy, I’m not entirely convinced that it won’t end up as a dodecalogy. Given his age and corpulence, there has been a lot of fear in geekdom that he will ‘pull a Robert Jordan’ and expire before the book series is finished. Quite a few fans are worried that they will never find out who ends up ruling the Seven Kingdoms, and if Jon Snow really is the bastard son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen. Leaving aside the question of how pressing a concern this really is, the good news is that if HBO re-commission the show enough times, sooner or later the screenwriters will have to come up with an ending: whether it’s based on the books, based on Martin’s notes, or made up out of whole cloth.

Not only will they have to finish it off, I’m also hoping that they may speed things up a bit. The gaps between books in the real world have lengthened exponentially even as in-universe time has slowed to the pace of a dead snail. Martin seems to have great difficulty in ever tying off any of his myriad plot strands, preferring instead to just keep on weaving in new ones, until it feels like he won’t be happy until he has told the whole life story of every single person in his imaginary world. At this rate, it is going to take approximately forever for the ice zombies to reach King’s Landing, and even longer for Daenerys to show up, zap them with her dragons, then marry her own long-lost nephews*. With any luck, impatient viewers and executives will dictate a snappier pace for television. Okay, so the events of the third book, A Storm of Swords, are being told across two seasons of the show, rather than the one-season-per-book format used up to now. But if you’ve read it, you’ll know that most of the best characters get killed at various weddings. Then nothing very much happens in the fourth and fifth books, so really, the show could probably just cut straight from Joffrey’s death-rattle to the zombie-toasting (via a bit of sexposition) and everyone would be happy.

For all I complain about the tedious pacing of Martin’s more recent books, there’s no denying that he has created a compelling world, and that every aspiring fantasy writer today has to consider his legacy and influence, in the same way that a previous generation looked to J.R.R. Tolkien (note to self: need to incorporate double-R initials in pen name). I just hope we get to find out how it ends, one way or another.

*well that’s my prediction, anyway