Welcome to my world and beyond...

A collection of snippets of the books I write and, occasionally, my life and the things that inspire my writing...

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Writing: Rituals of Death and the Universal Language--Emotion

When I read a book, I want to escape.  That just might be the reason that my preferred genres are scifi and fantasy--with a touch of romance.  So, when I read a book in which the author has done incredible world-building--one that knocks my socks off, it often includes details of the rituals of said world-- birth, coming of age, mating, and death. If they are odd, foreign, even freakish...they are captivating.  But, most of all, the treatment of death.

It waits for us all... and many of us avoid the subject--uncomfortable with the morbidity involved. Perhaps it is because of the deep emotions surrounding it--fear, sorrow, even doubt...  Still, when I read a book, if the author has woven in a death, it brings the story to life--smacks me with emotions that grab me and shake me.  And if it wasn't handled with brevity, but instead with the rituals of a culture, foreign or alien, it becomes fascinating.

Here, in the real world, everyone and everything dies.  And in a book, unless a protagonist is immortal, everyone and everything dies too.  It is an inescapable part of how things work.

My first lesson in the power of a fictional character's death--in a book, was Matthew in,  Anne of Green Gables. It may as well have been a real person quite dear to me who died in that meadow. And for years, I read fictional characters' deaths. In time, it became a sort of measuring stick for me--the impact of those deaths.  I didn't know how to explain, or the writing terms for it, but it was obvious:  if I didn't care about the death, the author had done a poor job of writing the book.

Years of thoughts followed, about life, about humans, about death and about how that translated into the stories we write, the stories we read, the stories we love...and the other ones...the ones that don't pass muster...   It doesn't matter on what world--or in what place in time a character lives, even if the mode of death is strange, the rituals surrounding what is done with the body, and the god question--what happens to a soul if there even is such a belief, are all secondary to this:  the emotions.

That's it in a nutshell.  All else can be foreign.  They can have three heads, be unisex, and eat helium for breakfast, but if we love them...if the author has done it well, then our hearts break when they die. And when they lose a loved one, we feel their pain, their loss, their sense that the world (no matter what world and where it is) can never be right again.  And that is because emotions are a universal language.   And we all understand the emotions surrounding a ritual such as death; we can relate.

Everytime I read a scifi/fantasy book,I hope the author has been creative with bizarre details, with ritual design, with creating life that barely resembles something here...but is full of oh-so-relatable emotion.


  1. Teresa...as redundant as it may sound...I am your #1 fan. (I know where you live) :-) I agree, if I am not profoundly moved by a death, in my eyes the author has failed. (hugs)

  2. Yes; I agree. A successful story teller makes you care about the characters, no matter what genre.

  3. I read this with such interest because, as much as I loved Anne of Green Gables, I think world building is either amazing or excrutiating. I know when it's the latter because I find myself skipping page after page.

    The former is easy too because it keeps me reading (way too late).

  4. Teresa, I feel like I have to come up with new and creative ways to tell you how much I like your writing and the truth I always find within your words. Your post made me sad this time. I re-visited all those deaths. Most stories, the ones that left an imprint on my mind, they did involve loss. The good ones always do. Loss always means change, and change is something we humans avoid, unless it's forced upon us. When we are finally used to the newness, it gets better, sometimes even better than before, but it's a long way to get there, in stories as it is in life. Losing an ally is a horrible thing. I always found the loss of a character who relied on the protagonist more than the other way around, to be an especially hard pill to swallow. I can't bear to see loyal companions die (dogs, horses.. animals somehow get me the most - and I'm always scared when animals are introduced, for what the author might do to them later in the story. I actually agree with you that those losses need a proper resolution for us readers to move on and not get angry at the author. Because we care so much we need farewell rituals, and if loss is not at all mourned, I always suspect that the author wasn't that attached to the character him/herself. We want the author to be as shaken as we are, or were, at some point, but it needs to be genuine to touch us, and sooth our wounds. The rituals need to feel authentic, and somehow true-to-life regardless of genre, species or setting. Not an easy task for a writer.

  5. Emotion is a "universal language." It's so important for readers to be able to laugh, cry, despise, and even mourn for the characters in a story. Very nicely written! Julie

  6. Marsy--thank you for visiting and reading...and most of all, for your unwavering support and encouragement. A big hug to you from the USA to India :-)

  7. Debbie, thank you for pointing out-- "...any genre." So very true. I must have had tunnel vision for scifi/fantasy. Thank you for visiting and reading! And I hope that springtime finds your world, soon!

  8. Johanna, agreed. I want the details, but I don't want the details told to me 6 times. I want to know all these cool and interesting things, but I don't want it delivered as narrative, and I don't want a back-story dump either. And I want the author to know where that line is--the one between holding a reader's interest, and the one encouraging the reader to skim. lol...Oh boy, just like Goldilocks--I want it all my way. I think that writers become keenly aware of not only bad writing, but also the things that make it bad. I have discovered that I cannot read without critiquing things that never even used to register. What does that say about it all? Do we (writers) become hyper-sensitive to story content AND how it is presented? I have always skimmed over tedium, but other things distract me so much more now. Always wonder...always think...never stop learning. :-) Thank you for visiting and taking the time to read and comment :-)

  9. Daniela, wise words from one so young... "Because we care so much we need farewell rituals, and if loss is not at all mourned, I always suspect that the author wasn't that attached to the character him/herself."

    I suspect the same thing, allowing for some differences in author's voices. Even with those differences, though, I think the author is missing something--missing an opportunity to pull the reader inside the story, to an even greater depth.

    Change...humans don't like it. Even lower animals would rather not have change. And that is a tool that a writer can use to evoke an emotion from the reader.

    "The rituals need to feel authentic, and somehow true-to-life regardless of genre, species or setting." Excellent point.

    Losing an ally...powerful! We suffer the pain along with the protagonist.

    You made me chuckle, Daniela. I still hurt for some of the fictional losses. Still wish the stories had found a way to not lose those characters, yet understand how deep the emotional impact of the loss was--and how the story would have been lessened had they not died.

    Thank you...again and again, for visiting, sharing, always adding an interesting element to the discussion. :-) A big hug from the USA to Germany... :-)

  10. Julie, thank you so much for visitng, reading and taking the time to comment. We writers love our kindred spirits and how we hold each other up!

    In as much as "love is a universal language" gets all of the quote attention, all the other emotions are universal too...

    I love a good book that pulls them all from me. If I have laughed, cried, angered, and felt happy too, a book is a five-star in my eyes.