Life and Death and Storytelling



I have reached the age where friends and family members begin to fold their wings and end their buzzing against the windowpane. My parents’ deaths came in the form of old age, and while I miss them terribly, I know they were ready. 

But I don’t feel that same sense of consolation when the one who succumbs has not lived through their 70th decade. 

The other night, I found myself crying at the dinner table after learning that a woman in our neighborhood, with twin boys the age of our son, had died. I knew she had a rare form of cancer. But I also knew she was strong and fierce, maintained a positive outlook, and had been an unstoppable force for good in our community. She was young and smart and beautiful, and I hadn’t allowed myself to believe that she could die.


But she did, and now my grief for her and her family was deepened by my own sense of mortality. I had to face the fact that I, too, could die at any moment. For she was one of US.

So how does death inform the decisions we make? What do we choose to do with the 1,440 minutes we have in the day?


What we choose to do shows what is important to us, right?

Hmmm, not so sure. I spent the morning paying bills, but then I suppose that is tangentially important.

But what about dusting? Perhaps it’s important if you’re OCD or if you’re afraid you’ll be judged lacking by your in-laws or dinner guests. What do your characters choose to do with their time? Why do they make those choices?

Death plays a starring role in our lives, whether it’s quietly personal or a catastrophic event. How does this reality leak into your stories? Does death inform your characters’ actions? Do your characters feel immortal, on the brink of death, or somewhere in between?

How would your character choose to die? That “how” carries two meanings, both of which are usually mentioned in an obituary: cause of death, and who was with them when they died. Would your character prefer to die alone? with their dog? surrounded by family? Do they want to live fast and leave a beautiful corpse? Do they wish they could live that way, but something inside them foils those wishes?

Even if there’s nary a wisp of death blowing through your manuscript, it is still a silent partner, affecting your characters’ decisions.

And if it isn’t, shouldn’t it be?



Filed under Craft, Howling at the moon

15 responses to “Life and Death and Storytelling

  1. Mrs. P

    What a great post. I’ve arrived at that stage where personal reflection on the really important things in life has already taken place but I hadn’t thought of extrapolating the concept of death and all of it’s possibilities into the written character. This is an excellent new writing viewpoint and tool for me.

  2. Pingback: Mother’s Day “Rare” Book Treasure | Jilanne Hoffmann

  3. What a wonderful post, Jill. I was reading through the comments just thinking that my initial tendency is to kill or maim a character in every story, and I’ve had to learn to pull back and allow many of them to live. On the other hand, my inspiration for stories often comes from the memory of people I love who have died, so I like bringing a part of them back to life. I will have to think some more about this post!

    • Hmmm, I guess I haven’t noticed that tendency. I have noticed that you have a certain tenderness that comes through in your characters. So maybe that’s related to the memories of those who have died. I’ll have to go back through some of your work and see about this maiming/killing tendency. Maybe you’ve edited that out by the time we’ve seen your drafts. Saves us from being traumatized by by the blood and guts. 😀

      • Thank you for that–I do feel quite fond of my characters when I stop to think about it.

        You haven’t yet seen this story, but there’s one about a guy trying to shoot a woodpecker on his roof and he shoots and kills a mischievous kid instead. That’s draft one. By the time I show it to you, the kid has turned into a drunken, philandering husband who gets a load of buckshot in the butt and has something to complain about.

        By the way, fingers crossed for Squaw! Hope you hear soon!

  4. As an OCDer, I can assure you that dusting and straightening is an important part of my life goals.

    That said, you make a very compelling point. I wrote for the stage a lot when I was young. Because my character were also young, there was a recklessness at work in their personalities — a sense of immortality. I rarely thought about death when I was in my 20s. The idea of death, the very gravity of it, rarely gave me pause — even if I was heading off to a funeral.

    I still don’t think about death all that much, but I do think about “the rest of my life” and govern my deciksions accordingly. What are the consequences, risks, and benefits of such-and-such an action? My characters are similarly motivated by these thoughts because, well, they’ve aged, too.

  5. This is very thought-provoking, we go through life with a general sense of our own mortality, at some times prominent, at other times very much in the background, but it is always there. But do we give our written characters a sense of their mortality? I can really see how that would potentially add depth to a character. Interesting, I will keep this in mind when I have some to to have another go at fiction writing again!

Bark back!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s