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Friday, July 16, 2021

Talking Shop: Death in Speculative Fiction • by Eric Dontigney

Death is a complex subject in speculative fiction, in large part because speculative fiction covers so much ground. There are simply so many ways to circumvent death in speculative fiction, be it magic, divine intervention, or super-science. Even Frank Herbert played around with the conventions of death by resurrecting Duncan Idaho over and over again as a ghola and allowing these clones to recover their memories through magi-science-mumbo-jumbo. Hey, just roll with it, people, because Duncan Idaho is awesome.

Unfortunately, all these opportunities to circumvent death -- and the rampant overuse of resurrection in the comics medium, in particular -- has taken a lot of cognitive jolt out of killing characters in your science fiction and fantasy novels. People blow off the deaths because, somewhere in the back of their minds, they don’t really think these characters are gone. That puts a certain onus on the writer. It’s on you to establish, very early on, that death has permanence in your speculative fiction universe.

There are several ways you can do this. You can have characters reminisce about dead family members, dead friends, or dead lovers. You can have a death in someone’s past be a driving force for their actions now. You can kill a character early on and have it be the psychological trauma that death is for people who don’t take resurrection for granted. Or, you can just make it apparent that some of your characters live in legitimate terror of death.

Just take care that you filter these things through the characters’ personalities and livelihoods. If your character is the walking, talking embodiment of a weapon of mass destruction in terms of personal combat, they’re going to have a very different relationship with death than that uptight waiter in the snooty restaurant or the maternal woman who chides your main character for not smiling enough. Yet, these disparate perspectives also offer you an opportunity to reinforce the idea that death is final in your universe.

It also means that any plans to introduce resurrection into your story must be very carefully planned out. After all, if you treat it casually, so will your readers. That’s one of the big reasons why, thus far, I’ve never resurrected a character that I can recall. I might, might, do it in one of my upcoming novels, but here are the basic rules I’ve set for myself when dealing with resurrection.

  1. It should be exceedingly rare.
  2. It should be exceedingly difficult.
  3. It should make sense within the context of the story.
  4. It should come at a massive (emotional or spiritual) cost.
  5. It should fundamentally alter the personality of the person who is resurrected.

I picked these as my baselines because they force me to treat death as permanent in my fiction. It also forces me to think through exactly how deep a relationship two characters must have for one to be willing to pay that huge cost. I added that last rule because I don’t think returning from beyond the veil should have zero consequences. If I read a book that included a resurrection that didn’t alter the resurrected character, I’d just assume the writer was being lazy. That doesn’t necessarily mean a change for the better. A change for the worse might actually be more interesting, but they absolutely should change in some meaningful way.

I also added that last one as a kind of subtle punishment for the character who instigates the resurrection. Sure, they’re getting a version of the person back, but they aren’t really getting back the person they lost. I think of it as the price of messing with the natural order. It also opens up some interesting ground for rearranging relationships. After all, the person your character brings back might not appreciate being dragged back from the great beyond.

If there is a big takeaway here, though, it’s that you must make your readers believe that death matters in your books. You must make them believe that, if a beloved character dies, they aren’t going to be all better by the end of the book. It’s the only way you can reclaim the cognitive jolt of death in your speculative fiction books and stories.

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Eric Dontigney is the author of the highly regarded novel, THE MIDNIGHT GROUND, as well as the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One. Raised in Western New York, he currently resides near Dayton, OH. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally online at ericdontigney.com.

 

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