In the fiction I write there are usually a few bodies left in the wake of my imagination. I sometimes kill people off to immediately launch into the story. Sometimes a death is used as a brief diversion or a means to neatly wrap up a climax. In using death this way, I’m not alone.
Like a game of Clue, authors design wildly different places and methods for our carnage. Beaten and strangled in a desperate fight on an Army base in Bosnia. Buried in cement in the jungles of Honduras. Drowning at sea off the coast of an Hawaiian island. Riddled with bullets in a wild gun battle. Slashed and beaten and covered in purple ogre blood beneath the streets of a city.
We’re a murderous bunch, we writers. We kill off whole societies with a deadly contagion. We track down a victim who perfectly matches a serial killer’s pattern. We choose just the right moment, during laughter and commotion, to end the most likable guy in the happy band of soldiers we’ve conjured up, making him the unlucky one to step on the trigger to the antipersonnel mine skillfully hidden in their path.
Should I be worried that we’re littering the ground with bodies purely for entertainment?
I admit to having been endlessly entertained by death. Since I was a kid, I’ve always loved violent stories, graphic novels filled with assassins, mobsters, killer aliens and the like. I’ve spent hours reading books about a double-edged ax wielding guy who lops off the heads of thousands of zombies until they are nothing but a mountain-sized stack of dead undead. I’ve also smiled while reading the story of the vengeance-seeking hero who finally ends his enemy in a bloody, action packed battle. He may come out with a few more scars but at least he’s taken the life of the evil dude who caused so much grief. And I’ve cried and shaken my head in disbelief, reading the words as fast as I could take them in, all the while hoping against hope that I was wrong. The author didn’t really just kill off someone I’d grown to love. Only the bad guys are supposed to die. It’s amazing how much it hurts when the good ones die too.
We don’t just write about it, we paint the picture, leaving scorch marks all around, the smell of cordite in the air, the taste of blood on your tongue, the sting of smoke in your eyes. Gotta engage all those senses, don’t ya know, to keep your readers riveted to the action, engrossed in the carnage you’ve created.
We use death as the ultimate plot point. The protagonist needs to avoid death, needs to save someone else from it, needs to deal it out to someone deserving. Do we write this fake, entertaining death to take our minds off the real death that happens around us every day? The old friend who unexpectedly succumbed to cancer. The guy in the bodega down the street, killed in a midday robbery. The young woman murdered by her boyfriend. The construction worker killed in a horrible accident on the job. The young soldier who didn’t make it.
Maybe I’m just reflecting on death as another birthday marches by. Perhaps writing about death reflects a need to prepare ourselves for the inevitable. After all, it is the one ending to the story we all know will be a part of our lives eventually.
Rereading this and jeeze, could I sound any more morbid?? It wasn’t meant to sound that way, I promise. Turn the page. There’s more life worth living.