Posted in Themes, Writing

On Themes: How To Write About Death

Death is part of real life as it is in fiction. The main difference is that we have the power to kill our characters whenever and however we want. We also have the power to bring them back, if our novel allows it.

When it comes to writing fictional pieces, I think we often forget that we don’t live forever and neither should our characters.

how-to-write-about-death

Common themes about death:

  • Circle of life
  • Grieving
  • Illness
  • Age
  • Immortality
  • Early death
  • Homicide
  • Accidental death
  • Escaping death

There are more death themes, but these were the ones I came up with for now.

Why writing about death is important

We don’t write about death to be a downer to our readers. We write about death because it’s part of everyday life. People get sick, people get old, freak accidents happen, some people are in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This is the same for your characters. If you’re writing about war, then some of your characters are going to die. Yes, your story may be fictional. However, unless you state that all the good guys in your novel are immortal somehow, then there must be death.

Grieving is a big part of death. Seeing characters grieve can help readers relate the situation in real life.

How death can help your characters grow

Your protagonist’s grandmother can’t be 90-years-old forever. If the main character’s grandmother passes away, what happens? The grandmother is gone physically, but not mentally or emotionally. Your protagonist will be sad and grieve, but will eventually move on. Remembering the good times and life advice from their grandmother develops your protagonist and teaches the readers something.

Death is beautiful

Yes, that sounds weird, but hear me out.

When writing about death, you’re not actually talking about death. You’re talking about life.

Think about it: When you go to a wake or funeral in real life, people have gathered to comfort each other, talk about and remember all the good memories of the deceased. You’re celebrating the deceased’s life.

What was it about the deceased’s life that was so special?

Make the deaths count

Don’t kill characters for the sake of killing them. Let their death be a lesson to your characters and to your readers.

Let the deceased leave something behind for your characters and your readers to hold onto, to remember. Something that makes them really miss the deceased, something that makes them feel real emotions for the death.

Keep in mind your genre

If you’re writing a murder mystery, then the deaths are a little more loose and most likely have less meaning behind them. They may not be someone close to your main character, they may not be someone that your reader will get to know before their death.

However, if you’re writing a coming of age story and a dear family member or close friend passes on, how would your protagonist react?

In conclusion

Death is an interesting topic because some people are averted to talking about it. It seems like a difficult subject, but it’s easier than you think. Don’t be afraid to put emotion behind it. Don’t be afraid to really express how you, as a writer, a reader, a human being feels about it.

What’s your advice on writing about death in novels? Let me know in the comments below!

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Author:

Born and raised in Massachusetts, Rachel Poli is a writer and blogger. She has an associate’s degree in Early Childhood Education and a bachelor’s degree in English Studies. She enjoys writing young adult novels, middle-grade, and children’s picture books. She is currently working on her first novel.

27 thoughts on “On Themes: How To Write About Death

  1. Another death theme is a parent losing a child. There’s a family friend on Facebook who lost her daughter about a year ago, and recently she shared this commentary on grief by an anonymous author:

    “I WILL GRIEVE FOR A LIFETIME!!
    Period. The end. There is no ‘moving on,’ or ‘getting over it.’ There is no bow, no fix, no solution to my heartache. There is no end to the ways I will grieve and for how long I will grieve. There is no glue for my broken heart, no exilir for my pain, no going back in time. For as long as I breathe, I will grieve and ache and love my son with all my heart and soul. There will never come a time when I won’t think about who my son would be, what he would look like, and how he would be woven perfectly into the tapestry of my family. I wish people could understand that grief lasts forever because love lasts forever; that the loss of a child is not one finite event, it is a continuous loss that unfolds minute by minute over the course of a lifetime. It becomes terribly exhausting to have such a depth of love and no outlet to release it. I’m locked inside my own mind and body and my soul cries out every moment of every day. Every missed birthday, holiday, milestone; should-be back-to-school years and graduations; weddings that will never be, grandchildren that should have been but will never be born– an entire generation of people are irrevocably altered forever.
    This is why grief lasts forever. The ripple effect lasts forever. The bleeding never stops.”

    Also, this looks like a good resource if anyone is researching loss and expressions of grief: https://www.facebook.com/missfoundation/photos/a.198349663752.129725.192650398752/10154374153888753/?type=3&theater

    1. Oh, that’s a big one. It’s never good when a parent has to bury their child. 😦 But I agree, there are so many levels of grieving and loss. Some may be easier than others, but none are ever easy.

  2. I agree with making the deaths count. When you get to play God in your novel, everything must have a reason, including a character’s death. It shouldn’t be for reasons such as the author couldn’t think of anything to write with the character in it or related things.
    Having dealt with death myself and some at an early stage, I agree that it teaches you a lot. It makes you take life seriously and everyone reacts differently to it, which you can use in your novel too.
    Nice post! 🙂

    1. Thanks for your input. Everyone deals with death differently, especially depending on your age. The first real death I had to deal with was when I was 10-years-old. It really does teach you a lot.

      1. I was 9 and I didn’t quite understand what death really meant, the finality of it. Adolescents and adults tend to lash out or retreat into themselves. Some will just immerse themselves in their work and bottle up their emotions. But one must truly know their characters to understand how each one will react. Death may also change people because it forces us to confront our mortality. It is quite an interesting topic (and morbid as well, but from a writing perspective I meant).

      2. I agree. It really makes us think and wonder. When I was 12, my aunt passed away suddenly at the tender age of 32. You think, “why her? Why now? What happened?” How is it fair that she had to leave behind a husband and two daughters (who, at the time, were only 1- and 3-years-old).
        It really is an interesting topic, morbid, but very fascinating. Just like the theme of love, I plan on expanding on the theme of death in the future.

      3. Yup, we do feel that it was random and undeserved when someone dies unexpectedly. With an illness, at least you expect it. Accidents or those without an identifiable cause will be surprising as well as hard on the people close to them.
        I’d love to see you take this topic further. Looking forward to it. 🙂

  3. Great blog post. I have to kill off someone in book two and I’m dreading it because I love the character and it’s going to cause a LOT of pain. But it has to be done for that reason – also to push another character over the edge. But you’re right you should kill them off for a reason not just because 🙂

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