Logan Masterson (that’s not him above) is, like me, a Tennessee writer of speculative fiction. Below he talks about death in fiction, how it affects us, and why it’s important.
Facets of Death
No, not faces, facets. In fiction. Fictional facets of the very real human experience. Let’s get into that.
The Tufa, they have an eye on death, and means something different to them than it does to us. In my own high-fantasy world of Ordrass, and a million glistening fantasy realms besides, death is a mere passage into higher forms, or a challenge to be forestalled or overcome. Grimmer worlds make something more serious and common of life’s end.
Death is common, of course. It’s all around us, all the time, just a little less prevalent than life. It’s one of the universal experiences, regardless of race, gender, species. In fact, it’s so very difficult for us to imagine a world without it that we demonize immortals in our fiction. Vampires, mummies, armies of animated undead stalking the myriad worlds like moon shadows, these are our visions of death denied. Angels, heavenly beings, are not monsters perhaps, but aliens, unlike us in the extreme.
To watch our favorite characters die sets us to considering the meaning of death. Fiction helps us to examine the end, to turn it in our hands like a bauble. Reflecting life in symbols is something stories do as well as any medium, perhaps better as the experience is longer than a painting, more sustained than a song. The symbols we see in the villain’s final breath, the supporting character’s early demise, or the hero finally laid to rest are powerful. Ubiquitous, too, but still moving.
There are ways to make death meaningless, the best of which are artful indeed. The worst examples seem somehow cheap, at least to me. When death is treated with little impact, a story begins to feel like a backlot set instead of an immersible world.
In a world of doubters and experts, we’ve become inured to death in so many ways. Media (especially movies and TV) can trivialize it so very well. Still, when treated properly, it affects us deeply, inciting tears or clenched fists. Death can set us deep in thought, reflecting on the meaning of life.
Some types of horror do this differently, cheapening the lives of many to illustrate the value of a few, the heroes or villains.
The author must take care with death. Its nature, timing, and consequences are never trivial. When an important character dies, the ripples can magnify, altering the story’s direction and tone.
We ask many questions of death. Who is hurt, or devastated? Who is relieved? Where is the advantage? What institutions or cabals will restructure or fall to ashes? What further role will the bygone play? Will another raise his banner, step into her shoes?
While a character’s doom may close all her doors, it is sure to open new ones for her survivors, friend and foe. The masters of fiction tug our heartstrings and challenge our expectations with unimagined consequence and reactions that surprise and intuit the reader. And why not? What more fertile soil is there than the one thing we all have coming? We all see it differently, through lenses of religion or science, logic or emotion, fear or denial, but it touches every one of us. Family, friends, beloved artists who have touched our souls, all pass on.
And we stand in the wake of their passing, the ripples rolling over us. We bend and break, fight the tide, struggle on. Our heroes do the same, their hearts and minds burdened with loss and wonderment. They carry us along down to Charon’s landing, help us find the coin in our pockets, and reveal at once something of ourselves and something of their creators.
As an author, how have you used this powerful dramatic tool? Readers, what fictional deaths have affected you?
Logan L. Masterson is the author of Ravencroft Springs and Ravencroft Springs: The Feast of ‘69, Lovecraftian tales of Appalachia, and the Wheel of the Year series of fantasy single shots published by Pro Se Press. Look for his “Prime Movers” stories in the Capes & Clockwork anthology series, and “Shadow of the Wolf” in Luna’s Children II, both from Dark Oak Press. A published poet, arts journalist and unapologetic geek, he lives in Nashville, Tennessee with five dogs, two turtles, and a lovely wife.