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Making a death meaningful

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by JBryden88, May 5, 2011.

  1. JBryden88

    JBryden88 Troubadour

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    So, not wasting any time after my hello thread :D

    In the first short story I finished (and I actually tried to shop it around to a couple places, but no luck so far) one of the main characters dies at the end. In the novel I plan to write, which is a huge expansion of that story, or even if I edit the short story and further revise it, I need to figure something out.

    I need to make that death meaningful.

    Basically, we get introduced to three characters. We've got Cathal, the main hero of the story. He's a soldier, he's very much haunted by it - I wanted to portray a character who while proud to serve, and while eager to do right by his country, does NOT take pleasure in the actual death, and may even feel he loses his right to be a happy man by taking so many lives. (kinda going on a tangent there)

    Then we have Hengist, kind of an opposite of Cathal while being the hero's best bud. A jolly rounded man, he is both what I'd call the "heart" of the story, while also being something of the humor. One of the few people who can get Cathal to basically let his stoic/moral guard down at times. Hengist is "simple:" he likes to fight, he likes his women, and he likes a good time.

    Finally, we have Aislin. She's another main character and while I hesitate to use the label "love interest," she's definitely that when it comes to Cathal. (Side note: Maybe its just me, but alot of stories make the "love interest" a completely dependent on the hero character. Aislin is attempt to make a love interest for the hero that is completely independent and able to kick as much ass)

    Anyway, she's also the sister of Hengist.

    I've found that Hengist needs to die. I wrote it into the short story, and I'm not satisfied with how, or why. It all comes to a head when Cathal basically finds himself fighting against the odds against a rather clever bandit king. Hengist in the original short story gets kind of a stupid death, but trying to save Cathal he ends up stepping on a trap. It's not effective, and from the few people I know that I showed the story, they thought it was a weak death too.

    What's a good way to have the best friend of one hero/the brother of another, die in both a meaningful way in the sense that it delivers a sense of bitterness, sadness, etc. but meaningless in the fact that he just did not need to die. (I don't mean that it didn't need to happen in the story, but in the sense that the heroes might lament that fact.)

    That's my only hangup I think with the story I've got planned. I want to make sure the death is meaningful, because it serves as a turning point for the other two characters in both their attitudes and further actions.
     
  2. Calash

    Calash Scribe

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    It is a tough question in that ether extreme will cause you issues. If you end up going with a death that is too strong it will overshadow the emotional subtext and you will lose the point. Too weak and you end up with issues like you are having now.

    Going from what you posted here you may want to think more along the lines of a revenge kill. ie: the bandit king is defeated and leaving. Your heroes gather together to tend to the wounds when Hengist suddenly stops talking in the middle of a joke, blood spilling from his mouth as the arrow sunk deep into his neck. With a slight gasp his body falls lifeless to the ground as the Bandit King escapes. The remaining heroes are in such a state of shock they do not think to follow.
     
  3. Chilari

    Chilari Staff Moderator

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    This is an interesting issue. There are times when a character needs to die to move the story forward, to bring about a change in another character, or to demonstrate to the reader and the characters the kind of odds they're facing or the seriousness of the situation they're in. Obviously, for a reader to care about the death of a character they first need to care about the character, or another character who is strongly affected by the death, before they actually pop it. But they also need to die in a way that means something.

    One way that writers and film makers try to make audiences care is to have that last moment between the dying person and someone else close to them, where a few words can be exchanged tearfully. But I don't like that; life isn't like that. And sometimes the way people react to deaths are not in proportion to how well they knew them. My life was more affected by the death of a casual aquaintance two years ago than that of my grandmother, who I saw almost every day when she was alive, when I was 13. And death affects different people in different ways.

    I think if we, as writers, remember than grief and the reaction to bereavement is much more complex than what we see in films - it's more than "Noooo!" cry cry cry, vow revenge, do something to make the dead person proud, feel better and at peace. There are more layers to it, more complex emotions involved, and the fact that there's more going on in life at the same time than just the fact that someone has died; the need to earn money or complete assignments or eat or shower or spend time with friends and family is no less important.
     
  4. I'd have Hengist get killed by either his sister or Cathal in the heat of battle. Guilt's a powerful emotion, and you could have some fun dealing with the aftermath and how the emotional fallout alters the relationship between the two (especially if it's Cathal who does the deed - even if she knew it was an accident, could Aislin ever truly forgive him?)
     
    Last edited: May 5, 2011
  5. The Realm Wanderer

    The Realm Wanderer Troubadour

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    I agree with Calash. Killing off Hengist whilst he's mid sentence cracking a humorous remark seems the best way for a character like that to go. Make it an emotional but quick death. Making the kill more than it needs to be may contradict what you've described the character to be in the novel up until then.
     
  6. Ravana

    Ravana Istar

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    What are you trying to leave your main character with? Survivor's guilt? A need for revenge? Disgust at the whole fighting business? Despair? And what attitude is Aislin supposed to come away with regarding her dead brother?

    One easy solution, the opposite of the one just suggested: make it a slow, lingering death. Hengist is wounded saving Cathal… but then they both feel a need to hide out (whether that need is real or merely perceived), to escape further immediate danger. While they're hiding, Hengist bleeds out, or the wound becomes infected and he dies then or some time shortly thereafter. If only they could have gotten Hengist some timely medical attention.…

    The precise details may depend on how long it's convenient to compel their hiding: bloodloss could kill Hengist in a few minutes or hours; an infection would normally take longer, but it may pass beyond the setting's ability to cope with it during a similar time period. Cathal may spend the rest of his life believing that if only he'd risked it, he could have gotten his friend the needed treatment; he might discover at some point that their hiding had been unnecessary; or it might have been absolutely necessary—and if they needed to remain silent and still, could explain why he couldn't bandage Hengist's wounds effectively—and his "guilt" arises from placing them in the situation where Hengist was wounded in the first place. Or from choosing such a lousy hiding spot.
     
  7. sashamerideth

    sashamerideth Maester

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    I like the ideas in both posts above mine,perhaps a wound that doesn't immediately kill, but that stops them short and they need to hide. As an added twist, they need to stay silent but Hengist is not able to stay quiet and Cathal's attempts to keep him quiet kill him.

    Say an arrow into the chest so he has trouble breathing, Cathal puts a hand over his mouth to keep him quiet or muffle coughing, and unknowingly suffocates him. Cathall would be left knowing he killed his friend.
     
  8. JBryden88

    JBryden88 Troubadour

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    To give an insight into the characters.

    Aislin is carrying a serious torch for Cathal, Hengist approves (he wants to see his sister with to a good person, and as far as he's concerned, Cathal is cream of the crop), and Cathal is resisting it - not because he doesn't like Aislin, but more because of the fact at this stage, he feels he doesn't deserve it.

    Part of Cathal's emotional journey is coming to realize that he's NOT a bad man just because he's slain so many (and he has, probably more then most soldiers because he's basically the king's right hand) and to accept that he is who he is and he CAN enjoy life.

    The Cathal-Aislin romance is one aspect of it, and its one that needs to get strained before they can have their "happy ending" (and I seriously emphasize the quotes there, because the story won't have a shiny happy ending) - Aislin does NOT want Cathal to give in to his feelings out of guilt, and since she herself needs time, is keeping her distance.

    So... some despair, disgust, revenge, and guilt for Cathal, and Aislin is heartbroken that her brother is dead. And it will harden her: when we first meet her, though she is a soldier, she's still relatively "green," and still relatively bright eyed and bushy tailed (though this is also thanks to the fact that her brother has helped raise her, and he's the eternal optimist.)
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 11, 2017
  9. Donny Bruso

    Donny Bruso Sage

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    If you want to strain the romance, have Cathal begin to get closer to Aislin, and then somehow make him responsible for Hengist's death. That will load Cathal up with guilt, and no matter how big the torch Aislin is carrying, being slightly or majorly responsible for her brother's death will dim the flames quite a bit until you give her a reason to forgive him.

    Personally I liked the infected wound angle Ravana came up with. Maybe both of them are wounded, but there is only enough of 'antibiotic herb X' for one of them, and Hengist insists Cathal take it. Maybe Cathal reveals a hidden selfish streak and just takes it for himself. Maybe he's secretly terrified of death and doesn't even tell Hengist he has it. There are plenty of ways to attach guilt or responsibility for the death of a close friend, it's just a matter of choosing one that fits your characters.
     
  10. JBryden88

    JBryden88 Troubadour

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    That's one option that sounds nice on paper, but wouldn't work for -this- character. I don't want to call him "emo" because he isn't, let alone self loathing, but he's definitely a "willing to sacrifice self for others" type. Hengist is sort of that way too, so in order for Cathal to kill him, it would require Hengist to beg for it.

    Hm. Still not sure. Thankfully I've got awhile to go before I get there. Hengist does have his own personal story the potential readers will get to follow long before his demise.
     
  11. Chase Simba

    Chase Simba Dreamer

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    I suggest a death scene where:
    Cathal and Hengist are in a dungeon.
    Water is rushing in due to the antaganist wanting to kill them.
    There is an opening in the ceiling, but neither can reach it alone.
    They figure, fine, we wait until the water rises up.
    But eels come in. Giant eels with sharp teeth.
    Knowing that Cathal with never be able to take his weight, Hengist stays below and lets Cathal climb on his shoulders.
    Cathal tries desperately to save Hengist, but he can't. The eels get him.
    Just an idea.
     
  12. sashamerideth

    sashamerideth Maester

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    Can they be Shrieking Eels?
     
  13. Chase Simba

    Chase Simba Dreamer

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    Whatever the world/story needs. They could be Shrieking Eels, electric eels, robotic eels, or even sea snakes. Just make sure that they're thin enough to slip through narrow waterholes that that the characters can't, and are deadly.
     
  14. Derin

    Derin Troubadour

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    I was thinking the same thing. :p
     
  15. Chase Simba

    Chase Simba Dreamer

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    *Note: It's important that anyone who reads my previous two posts realises that this is just an example. There are lots of different scenes that could be used, and I can't put anything in someone else's book if they don't want to use it. However, and this is to JBryden88, use this type of scene if you want to evoke emotion in the reader without making the character seem 'emo' or making the death seem worthless.
    P.S: If you do use that scene or similar, I suggest that Cathal foils the villain's nearly-complete plot or something directly afterwards, so that Cathal getting out at that time becomes important. Still, not my book:p!
     
  16. TWErvin2

    TWErvin2 Auror

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    A character's death will be meaningful to readers if they have made a connection with that character, or characters that will be affected by the death.

    How others respond (antagonists with sadistic joy, protagonists with gut-wrenching sorrow or remorse for example).

    Not only how the death occurred, but what's at stake with respect to the death.

    The death will either work or it won't. And the result may not be the same for every reader. There is no easy answer as it really depends on the story and how the author tells it.

    In the end, the best thing to do is to read published works, some you've enjoyed, that are similar in genre and writing style to you and see how those authors approached deaths and how they came to be meaningful to the reader. Study the wording, pacing, foreshadowing, character actions, thoughts, dialouge. See what made it work. Then apply what you learned to your own work and writing style.

    Just my two cents.
     
  17. sashamerideth

    sashamerideth Maester

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    I have recently fallen in love with the idea of killing a character during panicked escape, so the narrator doesn't know or relate that the character is dead until the danger is past. It can come as a realization that someone didn't make it and no one thought to make sure they were safe. A panicked search, the futility of it, desperation, blame, remorse...
     
  18. CicadaGrrl

    CicadaGrrl Troubadour

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    I'm all for a quick death. Something that creates shock, however also something both characters feel like they should have been able to prevent. You don't need crazy killing each other guilt to have massive guilt hit your character. Having his optimistic friend bite it would be a strong brooding effect. This is me, but I also go for gross death. There is nothing like blood gushing, intestine spilling, shit your pants kind of death (without making the detail obscene) that speaks death has no glory. death is disgusting and horrifying and random and ucky.
     
  19. Derin

    Derin Troubadour

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    I like this. Sometimes dear people, good people, just die, and there's nothing you can do and no way to really know until things have calmed down. I think this sort of death (with careful focus on the aftermath) highlights the unfairness of death much better than gratuitous focus.
     
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