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.