There’s a funny thing about dying. It’s happening everywhere – in our movies, our games, our books, on the news, in our families and schools and churches. But when it comes to thinking about our own demise, most of us push that to the back of the drawer.
“Nope, won’t happen to me. Not any time soon.”
That’s our grounding. And for anyone younger than twenty, real death is off the game board.
I find it interesting that our Western culture is obsessed with death, but in such a way that we pretend it’s no big deal. Why are fantasy stories so popular? Why have fairytales and myths been around forever? Because within this I-wish-it-were-so world, death IS no big deal. And in many cases, it doesn’t exit. Souls rise from their graves, gods become mortal, mortals become gods with forever-after lives.
Thousands of characters die on the silver screen every year and those actors continue to play in more movies where they die again. See? It’s not real.
Mortal Kombat is all about killing and the player’s last Fatality, which is a gruesome way of murdering his or her defeated opponent. Do the gamers die? Of course not. They live on and read the spin-off comic books, play the card game and watch the movies.
Yea! Death! So much fun! None of it’s real…until a psychotic young man opens fire in a theater or class room. And even then it’s a news headline; a concept of extinction, unless it’s someone you know and love.
How do our armed forces train our soldiers? They break down individualism to create a human combat machine which neutralizes the enemy. That ‘bad guy” carrying a gun is a target, like games in an arcade.
As a culture, as long as we have distance from the killing fields, we Americans have desensitized ourselves about death, until it knocks on our door. Then there’s pain.
WHAT DOES DYING HAVE TO DO WITH WRITING?
Nothing, if you’re creating a fantasy where your characters move back and forth over the threshold of death.
Everything, if you’re writing a story set in the real world.
But what IS your real world?
If you are molding a character without physical vulnerabilities or fears about vulnerability, what kind of jeopardy, if any, are you describing?
If your heroine isn’t scared for her life when she should be, as a reader why would you be concerned about her?
We all know that fear inhibits our performance and ability to make the best decisions. Fear makes us want to run. If every soldier did that, we wouldn’t have wars. Which is why fear is not an option on the battle field and there are many psychological ways of diminishing it. I won’t list them here.
But there’s a fact I will state: A suicide bomber, in real life or fiction, is not a hero. A hero is a person who is afraid to die and yet moves past those fears to stop destruction and save lives.
- How much risk and fear are you allowing your heroes to feel?
- How much of an internal struggle are you giving them to do the task they have to do?
- How much stress are you applying on your readers to make them feel your hero’s tension?
These are tools of our dramatic trade. But guess what? In certain genres, real trauma might be best kept in the drawer, as it already is. And here’s why.
Audiences for books and movies vary, but I think most readers and viewers prefer to keep their personal vulnerability walled off from the book, movie or interactive game.
In other words, spectators wants to see or read about violence, but without becoming internally involved. Sure, readers expect emotional jolts. But those feelings aren’t personal. The carnage on the page is not in bed with the girl reading about it. And when she closes the book and turns off the light, there’s a feeling of satisfaction knowing it was all just a yarn.
And that’s fine. That’s entertainment.
But there’s another level of writing that takes on more responsibility. It addresses death for real. The dying can be mental, as in dementia and advanced senility. Death can be psychological, as with the loss of control, like loosing the use of one’s body. Dying can be the heart break of lowering your beloved wife of fifty years into her grave.
There are many ways to die. As a writer, are you willing to feel death’s fear and loss to authentically put it into words?
And if you do write about it, why are you doing that? What are you trying to say by expressing and conveying pain and suffering?
If you are injecting scary thoughts into a story for the sake of a rush, then you are writing horror, and the message is: This story is an emotional roller coaster. But it’s not real. And as the reader, you are safe.
If you are depicting human vulnerability for any other reason, I would hope your message would be: Try to understand. Your adversary suffers as you do, but for reasons opposed to yours.
If you are authoring stories about kill-or-be-killed combat, perhaps your message will be: War destroys, rarely bringing peace forever. Collateral damage is the death of innocent people. Are there other ways to settle this conflict?
I’ll continue to be frank here. With the current trends, most people would rather read about vampire romance and serial killers than a tale about real cancer or the senseless killing in war. Most writers would rather write about a handsome, sexy werewolf or young adult angst than author a story about a devoted husband accepting his wife’s deformity after a crash.
For the debut writer, the market for “real life” is limited. And writing “real life” is difficult. Still, it’s a learning process that should not be skipped.
Going inside to that sad place is not pleasant or even easy. But if you can reach those feelings, if you can reach your denied vulnerability and get it right on the page, you will also reach other souls yearning for uplifting truths. You will remind them how fragile we all are, and how easy it is to hurt someone else, and why we should avoid it.
One can kill a person’s joy with six cruel words, or kindle love with five of kindness. Will you think about that? Will you write about it? If you do, you’ll touch the spirit of your muse, and our hearts as well.
Soldier photograph from the Seattle Times