Is “Death” Cliche’?

Sometimes in the world of fiction, I think it may be.

Now don’t get me wrong, on occasion I have written death into my stories. (Though probably not as often as some would say I should.) Few people like to think about death. I am not one of them. Yet squeamishness and fear are not the primary reasons I tend to avoid death in my fiction.

One of the big reasons I avoid it is that it doesn’t usually solve anything, or bring anything new to the table. Unless it’s a paranormal story, it’s as final as it is predictable. And perhaps a bit lazy.

You can go the route of George R.R. Martin and build up characters just so people fall in love with them, and then kill them. That’s one way. I haven’t read those books, but based on some of his interviews, I think he relies on that “shocker” a bit too much.

I also tend to think J.K. Rowling relied on it too much in the Harry Potter books. Though in Rowling’s case there was the added aspect of antecedent death. That is to say a death that has taken place before the action of the book begins which is crucial to the plot. That too is a well worn device. We open on the guy who just lost his wife, or his kids. Or lost them some time ago but is still working his way through the grief of said loss(es). How on earth will he cope? Or will he?

Worst of all, in my view, is what I call “Disease Fiction”. That is to say a large aspect of the plot revolves around somebody slowly dying of something. Before they do so, they spend the book making amends, facing fears, tying up loose ends, or what have you. And then readers along with characters have a good cry at the end. Overused. Depressing. Dare I say it, not very creative.

I’m bolding this section because I want to make one thing perfectly clear to any and all who read this; I am personally quite aware that death is a part of life. That tragedy happens. That people have to face this all the time. My father was dead by the time I was only seven years old. I was old enough to remember it all. They don’t have a word or phrase in all of the languages ever spoken on this planet that adequately expresses what that does to a person. So please don’t confuse my (usual) disdain for character deaths in fiction as some sort of denial.

What I’m actually doing is expressing that death is often used to manufacture drama within a story that otherwise lacks it. Now as a fan of Shakespeare, I have consumed more than a little literary death in my reading and theater days. It can enhance a work. But only if the work is worth while before the death. If it isn’t, you’re just using it to break people’s hearts and piss them off. That isn’t writing excellent fiction. That’s buying the most expensive silver platter ever made, and serving a Doritos Locos Taco from Taco Bell on it.

Drama can exist absent of death. People finding their way in the world. Crises of faith. Falling in (or out) of love. Redemption. Non-Murder mysteries. (Why are there so few of those? There are many crimes.) The list goes on, and I think in the last ten years or so, the pendulum of fiction has swung way too far in the direction of  “death as drama”. Instead of cheap thrills, we get cheap “feels”, as the expression goes today.

There will always be genres that require death in some form, of course. Or at least the real potential for death. War stories. Certain adventure flicks. Thrillers. (Though I think it would be more creative to come up with stories in those genres where nobody died. Think you could do it?) But on the whole I think in both literature and movies/TV, writers have become too reliant on it. Just because it is inevitable in life, that doesn’t mean it has to be inevitable in our fiction.

I’m all for some more fiction out there which is less depressing, frankly. My current novel hopefully achieves this. But if you must go dramatic, or even depressing or scary, do yourself and readers a favor and see how creative you can be by invoking those things without killing a character. You may surprise yourself with how much life you inject into your story by doing so.

 

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5 Comments

  1. Death is a trope like any other. What matters is using the trope effectively, placing it in at the correct time and with the correct build up. Any trope can be done badly; Death just happens to be a popular one right now as writers and movie producers think making things “darker and edgier” will sell more of their product.

    I’ve written a lot of death into my stories, and I usually try to do it with a point in mind. Whether or not I’ve done so correctly is up for my readers to decide.

  2. SHARKNADO!!!! I knew when I started watching the movie that it was going to be atrocious and ridiculous (which is exactly why I loved it) and it totally did the meaningless death thing. Characters died before you could really even care about them, and people died in some spectacularly crazy ways, just for the shock value. If no one at all died, the movie would have lost a lot of it’s draw, I’m sure.

    On of my WIPs starts with a woman whose fiance just died, and the book is pretty much the aftermath of that and how she moves forward with her life. I’ve been told what I have so far is incredibly realistic and emotive, and maybe too much so, because it is really depressing haha. So perhaps I won’t ask you to read that one. 🙂

    I always hate when characters I love die. It’s so not fair. I definitely cried more than once in the Harry Potter series. 😦

  3. “There will always be genres that require death in some form, of course. Or at least the real potential for death. War stories.” Fantasy it may be, but A Song of Ice and Fire is essentially a war story. If the hero hadn’t died in the first book, there would be no war. Yes it pissed a lot of READERS off and broke their hearts, but the main point of it was to piss a lot of CHARACTERS off and break their hearts. It becomes the rallying cry of the war that takes another 4 books (and probably more). The entire first book is the lead-up to war, with things getting more and more tense. His death at the end triggers the war (and the rest of the series). Almost every single person who dies after that is a direct casualty of war. So while you might argue that it’s all about the shock factor, the deaths (in that series at least) always serve some purpose to the plot. Or to character. Like in Harry Potter, where the main reason for killing off all of his mentors and protectors was to make him realize that he had to fight Voldemort alone. A similar thing happens in ASOIF. The main heroine starts out as a really sheltered girl. Her brother, husband, and son all die, forcing her to take control of her own life and lead instead of depending on a man.

    If I can justify the deaths, I don’t mind. On the other hand, I TOTALLY get what you mean about stupid/cheap deaths. It’s something I expect in, say, gory horror. It’s a trope. When I get mad about pointless deaths, it’s when no one else in the story reacts. They’re like, oh, this incredibly important character (or this incredibly important person in my life) just died, oh well, learn a corny lesson and move on I guess.

    But what REALLY annoys me to no end is when the author kills off a problematic character because it’s easier for them to die conveniently than for the other, more straight-laced characters to deal with the moral problems of having them around. The absolute freaking worst example of this is in Jane Eyre, the classic epic romance by Charlotte Bronte. I love that book, but the whole reason Jane and Rochester can’t marry is because Rochester is already married to an insane woman. In the end, Jane wanders back to Rochester to find that his old mansion burned down with his wife inside. Yay! They can get married now! How freaking great is that??? Ugh ugh ugh.

  4. Good points, everyone. It is a trope, Jeremy says, and like any can in fact be misused, or shoved into a story to inject false drama. But it can also be appropriate. As I said, I’m not sure there is a single extraneous death in Shakespeare’s best work.

    Jennifer, as for Sharknado, i don’t know what to say, other then you may need help. But truly, for a horror movie, I guess all of the death is needed. They exist for the death of characters. As for characters you love dying..agreed. I think perhaps some of the deaths some of you found to be crucial to the story were in fact thrown in for the sake of death. Harry Potter, I’m thinking of the one Twin, specifically. I do think that death was just sort of there. I can see the narrative point of just about all the others, (though Cedric is problematic too.) But Ron’s brother just seemed like she wanted someone popular to die, so she killed them.

    Laura, as for Game of Thrones, I know it must seem like I’m on a personal crusade against Martin lately, ha. But it’s not that. I’ve been plotting and thinking about this post before we explored that topic one on one. And though I have not read the Game of Thrones books, I can certainly see why people die in them. It’s a rough, bloody battle for power in that series. People get killed. I don’t mean to suggest that nobody in there should have died. Merely that it sometimes seems that is what is being sold mostly by Martin himself. “I kill characters you love.” But that may not be the thrust of his work, after all. Despite that, I think that even in war stories, a specific death can be extraneous. Again, the story’s the thing.

    And also, good point about the reactions. Having people just accept them sort of cheapens them in fiction, as well.

    • Re: Fred in Harry Potter — I’ve noticed that, without fail, in every single series I’ve read where there are identical twins, one of them dies. Usually it’s because the author needs to kill off *someone* for the fight/struggle to seem realistic or hit home, but not someone *too* important or developed, so they kill the twin. Most authors don’t seem to develop twins with the same care as they do other people, anyway. Either twins are the exact same person or the exact opposite person, but what defines them is their relationship with their twin. Then the writer can be all, “What will the surviving twin do now that they’re no longer a twin???”

      (I am kind of guilty of that in my first wip as well. But I defend killing a twin b/c I made both twins actual characters beyond their twin status.)

      As for Game of Thrones, I’ll admit that it has become kind of a selling point of the series. But I think that that happened more as a result of the TV series PR than the novels’. It is much more unusual to kill off that many characters in a TV show than it is in the book world. It has to do with what people expect from TV, and possibly also that they attach a face (often a famous one) to the character in a different way than they do when reading, so there’s that added, “Oh, they’d never kill off Sean Bean/Peter Dinklage/Lena Heady/etc., they’re too famous to die.”

      I suggest you read the books in order to accurately judge what deaths are necessary vs. what you’d consider cheap. 🙂 Though now you know ALL THE SPOILERS, haha. I also find it quite heartening that you are objecting to the death and violence instead of to the sexual content like most people. Death and violence are much worse than sex, tbh.

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