Quote of the Day (which doesn’t have a lot to do with death, but is amusing):
“No,” said the Ecstatic, his wide smile never faltering as he spoke. “I know who you are. Who you used to be. The circle is turning. He’s coming back. The lost one. Thrones will fall, worlds will burn, and just possibly the universe will come to an end, very soon now.”
“Well,” said St. Nick, considering the matter judiciously. “That’s all very interesting, but I can smell your neurons frying from here. So, I think I’ll go and talk to someone else who’s currently on the same planet I am.”
“Lots of people say that,” said the Ecstatic.
-From Deathstalker Legacy by Simon R. Green (who is proof that if enough wildly creative gore and witty one-liners are added, I will even like space opera).
1) Enough people dead cease to matter and become numbing.
If this is the effect you’re going for, great. But I often start off fantasy trilogies caring about the village that dies under the swords of barbarian invaders, and then becoming number with the report of every atrocity from every city or country. Science fiction does immense numbers of people dead easier than fantasy, where technology and communication can carry first-hand reports of it, and where there are generally more people to die. Also, science fiction authors seem to have more imagination about ways of killing people, or perhaps exploit their options more easily. Fantasy characters seem to die in sword-fights or in firestorms of magic, and that’s about it.
If you’re going to make a large number of people die and you don’t want your reader to simply say, “Yep, another notch on the villain’s belt, another reason he must die. Moving along now,” make it varied, personal, and real. Show what it’s really like to go through a siege. Put your heroes in danger, not just on center stage hearing about all the horrific reports of death from off-stage. It might make more sense for generals to command from behind the lines, but many fantasy protagonists start off not being generals and still not being in any serious danger after, say, the first half of book one. That also helps to lend a sense of unreality to the off-stage deaths. Our Heroes aren’t in danger, so why should the reader care?
Make it complicated, too. Don’t just have the Dark Lord marching to conquer all Middle-earth Fantasyland, and the good side resisting him. Show wars that could have been prevented, if only someone on either side wasn’t so stupidly proud. Or show wars that could not have been prevented, but for some other reason than the natural and eternal opposition of Good and Evil. Show how two sides work together to make an area inhabitable and tensions unbearable. It hurts like hell, but good fiction often does. Good tragedy always does.
2) Vary the heroes’ reactions to deaths.
It’s tears, most of the time. Someone usually throws up after their first battle, too. There are a few characters who get drunk. However, that seems to strain the emotional range of most protagonists. Usually it’s the tears and then the promises of vengeance, which, of course, are uncomplicated by any sense that the opposing side might have been provoked.
Perhaps the heroes are secretly glad that some of the characters die, because it removes complications. Or perhaps they can understand why other people mourn the dead, but they cannot. Perhaps they’re in shock for a while, or they act crazy as a way of dealing with it. Perhaps they never weep, rather than going through the convention of just crying later. Or perhaps they feel nothing at all but bewilderment and a vague sense of loss, because they didn’t know anyone personally. That would be the most realistic reaction when the protagonist is hearing about deaths in a village on the other side of the continent that she’s never been to and never heard of before now. Yet most of them cry instead.
Death shouldn’t be simple, and neither should the reactions to it.
3) Funeral customs could stand an overhaul.
Burial and lying in state are common in a lot of fantasy stories where it wouldn’t make much sense. Bodies rot very quickly in a hot and wet environment such as a jungle. The people there would probably adapt to it and get rid of the body, then perhaps mourn the spirit or memory of the person, rather than standing around a corpse that has begun to sink and rot three days before.
If the culture is a desert one, where bodies rot slowly if at all, and especially if the culture in question practices mummification, then the funeral could be long and slow. It still needn’t include black-clad mourners (in the desert?) standing around a gravesite.
Even in a temperate climate, there’s no need for black clothing and burial and skulls. Do the cultures believe that the dead will need their bodies again someday? If not, what’s the point of burying them in a coffin to protect them from the elements, and as intact as possible? If the point is to let the spirit go free, burning would work better, or feeding the body to wild birds, to destroy it as quickly as possible. If the point is to return the body to the earth, then burial without a coffin or tomb would insure the body could have more contact with the soil. (Although one must be careful how one goes about this. See point 4).
There’s no need for symbols such as the skull and crossbones, either, if your world is different. Perhaps the bones aren’t especially important to your culture, or the bones of the hand are considered more important than the skull. Perhaps the heart is taken away and buried instead. (This happened to the poet Shelley, who, according to legend, was burned on the beach where he was found after his drowning because of plague laws. His heart supposedly refused to burn, and was carried away and buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome, under the inscription Cor Cordium, ‘heart of hearts.’)
4) Disposal of bodies is not a clean process.
Burial in a coffin or tomb may be necessary to keep the body from contaminating the soil, depending on where the body is buried. It’s especially bad if it’s near water, where rotting flesh can add pollutants to the stream. It’s sometimes suspected that the Brontës had mental problems because their house was downstream from a graveyard that had problems with body disposal.
Immense battlefields are even more of a problem. The bodies have to be gotten rid of soon, especially in a hot environment, where they’ll start rotting and breeding diseases. But having an individual grave for every soldier is not possible, and I don’t recommend the usual fantasy method of getting rid of them (just not mention them). Mass graves are the solution, but they take a lot of time to dig and prepare. Pyres require immense amounts of wood, time, and fire, since human bodies hardly burn as well as more traditional sorts of kindling. Perhaps all the dragons that end up flooding the battlefield could do some good when the war is done.
Discouraging as this sounds, I believe that detailing just how your heir’s army disposes of bodies can be an important part of showing how the world is changed in the wake of him coming to the throne (or whatever other immense change in society required an epic battle). It shows that things don’t magically become right when the correct person ascends the throne. There’s always cleaning and scrubbing and working to be done, and that grounds the rebirth in reality.
5) Know what kind of effect death wounds have.
I’ve talked about this before, but someone stabbed through the heart or throat is not going to lie around making a dramatic death speech. A wound in the throat prevents speech at all, unless the person is deaf and using her hands (and my, doesn’t that make for a grotesque image). It’s also unlikely the person would stay alive long enough to get through the entire speech, since a throat cut lets out so much blood. Someone stabbed through the heart could live for a short time, but the shock will prevent motion and most speech.
A gut wound is famous as a lingering death, one that I sometimes feel fantasy authors inflict on their characters specifically to give them time to tell the Destined Prince important stuff, but the reason gut wounds are so nasty is because they goddamned hurt. Someone with her intestines hanging out will scream and swear an awful lot, and probably pray. Will she remember every detail of the circuitous route to the dragon’s cave? Not unless that goal has been particularly important to her all her life, and she can manage to concentrate through the pain.
Other wounds that kill in ways to prevent talking are wounds to the femoral artery, which send blood rushing out; head wounds, which if bad enough the victim won’t recover from, and which may send them into hours-long comas before death; and wounds to the chest and lungs, which take away the air needed for speech.
6) Realize the consequences of your characters’ attitudes towards death.
I have laughed myself incoherent at fantasy characters who get horrified and indignant when the enemy tortures their soldiers, but who happily torture the enemy’s soldiers to get information. Similarly, a successful enemy soldier is hated and vilified as a butcher, while the fantasy hero who kills a lot remains a hero (and can often cause readers to nod and grin along).
It’s one thing to make a difference from the beginning between one side’s cause and the other’s, and to see enemy death in terms of horrifying necessity, though this can be easily overdone; see point 1. It’s another thing altogether to castigate the enemy characters for death and torture as death and torture, and then have your heroes turn around and practice them without a murmured comment. Fantasy authors are relying on a deeply Western differentiation between murder and justifiable homicide here, and depending on their readers to always see the heroes practicing justifiable homicide. But when they do nothing to build that attitude in their own worlds, the characters’ moral code goes sliding into incoherence, or blatant hypocrisy.
I think that last irritates me the most. Somehow, it’s always all right when the good guys do it.