Wednesday, 4 April 2012

D is for...

Death, which sounds quite morbid, but I suspect that may end up being my point. Back in his book The Hour of Our Death (1991) Phillipe Aries made the suggestion that there were four distinct phases Western societies had gone through with their attitudes to death, with an initially almost blasé approach to it, then the notion of a ‘good death’, then the ‘beautiful death’ of the romantics, and finally our modern approach of treating it almost as taboo. It don’t entirely agree with him, or with the way he argues it, but he may have a point about some of our current attitudes.

I find it coming out in books. We’re in the weird situation where the simple words ‘die’ and ‘dead’ seem to be somehow off limits, with numerous euphemisms taking their place. People ‘pass on’ or simply ‘pass’ (which makes it sound like they’re playing rugby rather than dropping dead).

In current fiction, you’d think there would be lots of death, because frankly it’s full of the un-dead, but often it isn’t the case. If it does happen, it seems to happen ‘off screen’ so to speak, or to characters who don’t really matter so much. We might occasionally get the news of a death, or see some level of physical violence, but even there, we are protected from the emotional impact of it.

One quirk of this, and possible exception to it, is of course the inevitable dead parents. Those who don’t read (or in my case occasionally ghostwrite) the genre won’t recognise this cliché, but it has become rather traditional for a main character’s parents to be dead in the genre, for an assortment of reasons that are partly to do with the amusing idea that all characters should have something horrible in their pasts, and probably rather more to do with the technical and logical issues it solves for the writer.

I’m not going to claim to be immune to this. In my novel Court of Dreams, I’m surprisingly reticent when it comes to killing off major characters. I have some substitutes for it, but mostly I prefer the villains of the piece to get theirs in slightly more poetic ways. Hmm… maybe that’s something worth thinking about for next time.

7 comments:

L.G.Smith said...

Dead parents are a must in children's stories it seems. And I think there is some truth to the notion that we are slightly death phobic in modern society.

Dawn Embers said...

A very interesting post on death and a good choice for D. One of my favorite books of poems I found as a teen involved some great poems on death and those I remember enjoying. I have noticed in the few undead stories I've read, the focus is on living and not on death.

Oh the dead parents. I still don't quite get it, though I have a few in my stories of that genre that involves the letter A and Y. ;-)

Stephanie said...

I killed off my MC's parents (looks sheepish)

But my novel does have two major characters die "on screen."

It's interesting how much modern day culture seems so twitchy about death, and yet violence and zombies are at their height of popularity in the media.

Jaimee Hunter said...

I blame soap operas! They bring them back from the dead all the time. Now we have a teen series that gives them eternal life. Disney ruined me for life by always killing off the mom. I write mostly memoir pieces and the last year has been about the death of my beloved sister. It's mostly about healing their. I really enjoy your insights.

Jaimee Hunter said...

I enjoy your insights, Stu. Good points. Sorry. I wrote a lot more but lost it all on sign in.

Ash Krafton | @ashkrafton said...

Death gets such a bad rap.

It's just a doorway. Or, if one prefers a more tangible comparison, it's a skinny dude in a robe.

Either way, I don't know why it's looked at so negatively. Life's a wheel and Death is only one spoke. :)

Rusty Webb said...

That's interesting in regards to euphemisms being used to speak of death. I would have thought it had to more with religious thought - they aren't dead, they're just moving on to a different life - permeating our vocabulary.

Maybe not. That's my first thought though. Great stuff though.