Two things are inevitable: Death and taxes.
We know that Death does not discriminate. It does not favor. It does not forgive. And it is an eventuality that we each must face.
“Every one of us will have to die alone.”
As I write this, I think, “Maybe I should save this for my Halloween post. It seems awfully macabre on a random Monday.”
But I can’t wait until some designated dia de los muertos to think about Death. It’s everywhere. It’s the other side of Life, of every moment.
Does this make it something to fear? Many people think so. Many people instinctively fear Death and avoid thinking about it. However, others actively embrace Death, actively embrace the macabre. Despite your attempts to avoid it, there is no escape.
What Do You Think of Life?
Death shows what we think of Life. Attitude toward the one reveals the attitude toward the other. The questions that a person asks, the questions that a person avoids, the beliefs that a person considers, rejects, or holds dear — all revealed in the questions:
| What happens after we die? and What happens before life? | When is the exact moment of death? and When is the moment life begins? |
While a person conjectures, they also act in accordance with the beliefs they develop. As the world around them affects them, they develop their true inner character and viewpoints on Life and Death.
How to Write About Death
When writing a character, consider how they approach Death as a way to reveal their true personality. Their attitudes toward Death and their interactions with Death in their world display their deepest beliefs and the personality traits they consider core to their identity.
Considering how your character approaches Death should help you answer that ever-pressing characterization question: “What should this character do?”
There’s no one way, no wrong way, to write about Death.
Writing About Death Strategy 1: Protection Against Vampires
“The dead don’t bury themselves.“
When anthropologists analyze a tomb, burial site, or evidence of human burial rituals, they are able to uncover a great deal about those people’s beliefs and attitudes toward life. We can find out how they lived: what they ate, what they considered valuable, what they thought about vampires.
In every society throughout history, people have wondered what happened after death. And in more than one society (several, in fact, including peoples of ancient India, Colombia, and Greece — so sayeth the great Wikipedia) developed burial rituals to ward against the dead rising from their graves (including this fifth-century Roman grave where a child was buried with a rock in her mouth.)
Your character’s attitudes about Death will come largely from social influences. Who has your character buried, and who will bury your character? Those people are likely to be important, as they will influence your character’s core personality.
But more importantly, consider: How would your character prevent or protect against vampires?
Write a scene, or simply a detailed answer to the question. Consider, seriously, if your character believes that vampires are real, how would they handle that, and what would they do to prevent — or even, to support — vampirism.
Writing About Death Strategy 2: Childhood Memories
Children fear what they’ve been taught to fear, and its nearly impossible to release the fears of childhood once we reach adult status.
The child’s fears of death become the fears that adults struggle with, live through, carry inside each day.
To examine your characters’ attitudes about Death, consider what scares them. To their core. What keeps them awake at night? What do they run from?
Write a scene from your character’s childhood that shows and explains the source of their biggest fear. Whether it’s barking dogs or heights or butterflies. Whatever makes them cower, show yourself why. Then consider, how can this fear help my character feel alive? Is there another character who can embrace this terror and push it from fear of death to love of life?
Examining the deep-seated fears and flipping them into life-affirming opportunities both cracks open your character to reveal the child within, and shows you where the character can grow and heal on their journey.
Writing About Death Strategy 3: Go Goth
“I myself am strange and unusual.”
Is your character unafraid of Death? Unwilling to look away when others shield their eyes. Uninterested in polishing over the unpleasantries.
When I think of characters who won’t look away from Death, I think of Lydia in Beetlejuice. The original 80s goth chick (I love you Winona Ryder!), Lydia is not interested in shielding herself from the “strange and unusual.”
When others don’t notice Death. When others choose to ignore, shake their heads, trivialize, or smile in the face of it, she is investigatory. Her curiosity, which replaces the fear we see or expect in others, is childlike. Refreshing. And it’s honest.
Writing a “goth” character is not about making someone as “dark” as possible. It’s not about making someone be “obsessed” with Death and destruction (although yes, I have seen these people in real life. These characters can work in fiction as well) — it’s about the wholesome, open embrace of the rotten, the frightening, and the abnormal, with a healthy level of fear, respect, adoration, and appreciation.
For a less funny exploration of this same idea, may I recommend Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil? Nearly 200 years later, “A Carcass” is still cringe worthy.
If you think otherwise about Lydia: Go ahead. Fight me. 😉
Writing About Death Strategy 4: Death as a Character
So that’s great — an idea of how some people might approach Death, even when they encounter it. “But,” you might think, “what if my character is fairly normal? How do I write their attitude toward Death and life?”
A practical writing tip for writing about death:
Treat Death as you would another character. Give Death a physical manifestation, a voice, a hair color. You don’t have to do a full character sketch, but a basic outline would be good.
Then, put your character in a diner and have Death sit down and strike up a conversation. About the food at the diner, or the weather, or something trivial. As this is the only scene like this, don’t think about keeping Death’s identity secret. Let Death reveal him/herself in the first couple lines of dialogue, if the character doesn’t immediately recognize Death when it sits at their table.
A single conversation here. Death is not here to take your character, just a casual get-to-know-you conversation. No sense of threat.
How does your character act? With reverence? Joy? Awe? Respect? Relief? Sorrow? Fear?
Let them talk for two, maybe three pages. Then, Death has to go. After you see how your character acts toward this ancient, immortal, potentially terrifying presence, you might discover how they react toward the rest of their life.
For some ideas on how different characters interact with different manifestations of Death, may I recommend Neil Gaiman’s American Gods to you? Novel or TV show. Choose your poison.