Sunday, March 16, 2014

Could Death Really Be the Novelist’s Friend?

First, of course, no, because like everyone else, novelists hate pain, grief, and loss. But on second thought maybe yes. Don’t friends get you in touch with your primal feelings? Those that shape the fears and desires of all people, no matter the time or place?

Death might be foremost among these feelings. It terrifies us, wounds us, deranges us, and, arguably, makes us creative because there isn’t enough time, and knowing that, we yearn to leave some trace of self behind. Primal emotions are the wellspring of story, and death is foremost among those.

Tip: Genuine emotion protects you—and your readers—from sentimentality.

~ Grief is a primal emotion.
It’s universal, which means that you need some new way to transform bitterness into insight and music. Emily Dickinson wrote that “Parting is all we know of heaven/And all we need of hell.” Edna St. Vincent Millay reminds that “Time does not bring relief; you all have lied/Who told me time would ease me of my pain!”

Question.: How would your protagonist describe the emotions following death? How would your antagonist contrast—or compare—with that?

~ Fear of mortality is a primal emotion.
Since the time when humans understood that each of us would die, we’ve developed ways to try and understand, to try and cope. Your characters share this need with everyone else in the world.

Question.: How does each of your characters cope, or fail to cope, with the reality of death?

~ Mortality is a source of energy.
Some writers use time—and its finite nature—as a motivator. No one can know how many tomorrows there’ll be. Why waste today? Are you writing as much as you want to?

Question.: How do your characters view time, mortality, and death? Do these motivate them?

~ Mortality is a source of creativity.
Some believe that the reality of death inspires art—from music to sculpture to novels. Whether or not that’s true, mortality instigates a complex amalgamation of conflicting emotions—everything from betrayal and remorse to memory, gratitude, and forgiveness. Death illuminates. It clarifies. That’s a lot of raw material.

Question.: Are your characters creative? Does mortality affect that? Why or why not?

Awareness of death is part of what makes us human. So much emotion and so many emotional constellations reside there. Perhaps death inspires us to become novelists—and probably drives us to write the best fiction that we possibly can. 

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