Fictional death: Should it come for all?

Fictional death header with grim reaper

Fictional death header with grim reaper

On a forum that I frequent, one poster launched a discussion in regards to death in fiction, asking why the majority of authors feel the need to resurrect characters or never kill them all along. This, in turn, got me thinking about fictional deaths both in the books I read and the ones I write. Ultimately, I think it is unfair to say that the majority of writers will reverse character deaths (or make it so they’d never actually happened), though there are plenty of death tropes (I’m sorry, but you clicked the TvTropes’ link on your own accord … it’s on you) that show writers do from time to time give into this temptation — though, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The statement that “a majority of authors” do this, however, rubbed me wrong. And since I predominantly read fantasy and science fiction, I was further peeved when it was suggested that these two genres don’t have  room for realism when it comes to death. Yes, some fantasy and sci-fi worlds have resurrection or death workarounds built into their fabrics, and that is fine. When you pick up these books, you very often have a good idea of what you are getting into. However, both of these genres also have entries that strive for death realism. And as far as I’m concerned, there is room for both in fiction, especially when the rules around death are clear and honored within the world.

Zoe and Tamara from Caprica
Two girls killed in a train bombing find a second life as online avatars in Caprica.

It’s wrong to be so dismissive: There’s room for almost everything in fiction. And even in stories with resurrections or workarounds, very real-world commentary usually lingers in the undercurrent, sometimes being quite profound. The short-lived Caprica springs to mind where online data is used to create digital avatars of two girls who died in a terrorist bombing — effectively resurrecting them … or did it?

There can be meaning in not-deaths. They can pose questions that we might face one day as a society. Our technology continues to evolves, and we are leaving personal data about ourselves all over the internet. Could we live again through that data? Is it right to use this data to recreate the dead? Just think, within 50 years, the dead are set to outnumber the living on Facebook. Heck, we already have holograms of deceased celebrities performing for us. There is also an instance where an engineer create an AI of her deceased friend.

Fiction often mirrors real life, and we (at least in the U.S.) have tried to ignore death until we can no longer do so, sometimes even stretching out a terminal illnesses to the point that quality of life is long past. It is fitting that we are asking these types of death-related questions in our fiction or using text to magnify and examine our desire to banish this fact of life. Through this examination, I think we better understand ourselves and perhaps lessen the fear of death.

Image from Harry Potter's The Tale of the Three Brothers
The Tale of the Three Brothers shows the futility of resisting death.

On the other hand, there are tons of authors across the genre spectrum who reside in the “All Deaths Final” camp.  The Harry Potter series springs to mind in fantasy, with The Tale of the Three Brothers and Voldemort himself being keen examples that you can’t cheat death. The series also gives us great quotes like: “Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all those who live without love.”  Sure, a Resurrection Stone exists within the Harry Potter world, but it doesn’t really provide a full resurrection — the dead are not brought back to living flesh.

Stories where death is final are also important in fiction and can be cathartic for readers. We have all lost people and to examine those feelings of grief in fiction can help one work through complex real-life emotions. It can also help us better face our own mortality and mentally prepare it — maybe even sparking real-life conversations with family and friends that would go unsaid because death isn’t the most comfortable of conversation topics.

These questions and conversations are equally as important as potential what-ifs of how something like data could be used to create life-like avatars of the deceased. Writers can normalize death in their works, remove the stigma that has been built around it, and encourage thoughtful, open discussions about it.

Both of these approaches to death can encourage readers to treasure life and ask tough questions about it and death. Perhaps, these works of fiction will even encourage a reader to write down detailed wills about what they want to be done upon their death . . . including what to do about all that online data (sure, you can’t get it all) and Facebook account.

I won’t deny that plenty of “no greater meaning, no commentary” deaths exist in fiction. They do exist, and some are very poorly written or clearly a case of a writer getting cold feet or backing themselves into a corner. However, one shouldn’t knock a majority of writers over these instances.


Published by smwright

Sarah Wright is the author of The Heritage Lost Series and several other works of speculative fiction. Professionally, she works as a staff writer and editor at a newspaper/magazine company. She enjoys interweaving her love of history into her writing, even in the most fantastic settings.

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