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Sunday, 2 July 2017

Reapers are a Writer's Best Friend; Part 1 - Books

Let's face it: death in all its myriad and repulsive forms is an inseparable part of life. It's the yin to the yang, the other side of the coin. Nere the twain shall meet, yet one cannot exist without the other. But the problem is that death is liable to be treated in popular media in a way that might skew its place in people's lives. Sure, there are plenty of ways in comics, movies, television, books and games that treat death with the respect and gravity it deserves, but there are just as many who treat death as an almost-trivial means of advancing the story. In this post, I'll be looking at how a death can advance a story in books.

Oh, and since we're delving into character deaths, I'll say this for the sake of formality. MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD, READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.

To take an example of death being a multilayered story catalyst, let's look at the death of Boromir from Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, the first volume of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. While not exactly foreshadowing, Boromir is constantly shown to be the weak link in the Fellowship, as his will is being easily suborned by the Ring's baleful influence. Events come to a head when he tried to force Frodo to hand over the Ring, an act which ultimately breaks his madness. Aragorn offers him a chance to redeem himself by protecting Merry and Pippin. Boromir is ultimately slain by orc arrows, redeeming himself by giving his life in defense of the remaining Hobbits and proving his worth despite the Ring's temptation. Boromir's fall and death serves a three-fold purpose in the narrative; it shows the full corrupting force of the Ring as Boromir is otherwise a noble and true man, it allows the character to find redemption and regain reader sympathy after being an ambiguous to antagonistic force, and symbolises the shattering of the Fellowship that has endured since Gandalf's fall and presumed death in Moria. This is an example of a potent story death, as it drives home plot points and evolves the plot beyond the initial volume, giving readers an extra hook to continue following the story.

Heroic deaths are as common as they can be in general fiction, so it's difficult to pick out any one death that fits this trope while doing a good job of it. The death I'm choosing for this next piece is from Jonathan Stroud's final original Bartemaeus novel Ptolemy's Gate. This novel is the culmination of plot threads scattered through the length of the trilogy, whose hidden main theme is the unequal relationship between magicians, their magical servants, and the people they rule through fear and ignorance. After the spirits of magicians are liberated through forcefully possessing their masters to destroy humanity, the two main protagonists - Bartimaeus and his master Nathaneal - are forced to undergo a similar merge while working cooperatively to destroy the abominations born from the rebellion. It culminates in Nathaneal breaking the powerful staff he has been using to destroy the powerful Nouda, an act that would kill both himself and Bartimaeus. Going against all their interactions up to this point, Nathaneal releases Bartimaeus before his death, sacrificing himself but freeing his servant. Through his death Nathaneal saved both London and humanity in general, but through releasing Bartimaeus he overcame the precepts of being a Magician that were drilled into his otherwise kindly self.

Death forms a core part of many of the most famous mysteries within crime fiction. Wilkie Collin's seminal The Moonstone focuses on theft far more than death despite being classed as the first true detective story, but there's no denying death is the central theme of crime and mystery novels from the Victorian era onward. Historian Lucy Worsley, in her book and television series A Very British Murder traced a line of public fascination with murder going back into the early 1800s that influenced the trend in fiction. When used in detective or mystery fiction, the murder is the focal point of the plot. Your protagonist seeks to discover the truth behind the murder whether the reason be simplistic, complicated, farcical or tragic. Everything else about the story can be seen as incidental to the central murder. Of course in some stories, such as At Bertram's Hotel, a murder only occurs fairly late in the story and is almost entirely separate from the main mystery.

The deaths of people otherwise unconnected with the flow of the story up to a certain point can seem odd and jarring, but there are several works that use it to great effect. One of the most forceful uses I've ever experienced is Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Much of this story concerns Professor Aronnax's journeys with the enigmatic Captain Nemo around the oceans, seeing its wonders and dangers while getting to know his captor/host better. But the story started with a monster attacking ships, and it would begin its conclusion with that. A mysterious ship appears that enrages Nemo, prompting him to imprison his guests and attack the ship. Aronnax becomes witness to the aftermath - the ship sinks into the abyss with all hands as Nemo watches every detail and Aronnax watches with him in stunned silence. These people and the ship has never appeared in the book to this point, but Nemo's merciless action and the sequel Aronnax observes acts as the book's emotional crescendo, and a turning point leading to the final escape and the apparent loss of Nemo's ship to the Maelstrom whirlpool.

A recurring element within novels is that individual and widespread depictions of death are frequently well-described, or at least given a substantial amount of description and dialogue. This is due to the ever more relaxed restrictions on word usage in various genres despite continued expectations of certain lengths being attached to certain genres. You could be detailed and gruesome about a single corpse, or place sweeping descriptions of widespread carnage. It's something unique to novels - the ability to tell through words, leaving a lot up to the imagination while also giving more detail than many visual media can accomplish.

Next week, we dive into the realm of movies. Functioning on similar yet differing rules, death is portrayed differently from novels, turning it into an alternately thrilling and gratuitous experience unlike any other.

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