Wake Up and Smell The Ashes

Estimated Reading Time: 6.15 minutes.

Hope felt the change. She put what strength she had left into it. Every last ounce of strength she had. Sucking the light out from her world to give it to him.

The darkness.

So cold.

XavLab, Recovery, Chapter 6

Anyone can die

In a world of fantasy, the horrifying truth is that death is an inevitability. The only reason that a lot of main characters survive that kind of strange and dangerous world is plot armour, and as many readers of my own books have discovered I prefer it when plot armour is only paper thin.

Anyone can die, at any time.

This isn't intended as some kind of emotional manipulation of the reader, to make them feel more deeply invested in the story, though it can obviously result in it. I truly hate writing the aftermath of a main character's death, because I feel it more keenly than most readers will. I know my characters, and their death can still feel like a loss.

The simple fact of the matter is that a character who always manages to survive, through their own actions or through some kind of divine intervention, is not a realistic one for most of the worlds that I design. Sometimes I write myself into a corner where the logical conclusion is that character's death. Some writers will then go out of their way, rewriting to give the character an edge, or introducing someone else who can save the day, and so on.

That kind of rewriting isn't subtle. It doesn't fit with the overarching narratives, and you can often tell that the only reason a character exists is so that one the authour is more deeply invested in doesn't have to die.

So, when logic dictates that a character should die... In most of my stories... They die.

This leads you to the inevitable - how to handle the aftermath?


The aftermath of a character dying is far more important than the death itself, in writing.

How everyone else reacts sets up their own arcs, and controls how important that death is for the reader. Sometimes the context of the death forces you to delay mourning - especially if they die in battle. Sometimes knowledge of their death can be significantly delayed.

However, the longer you delay facing mourning, the more disconnected from that emotion that the reader will be, and the more they'll just want to skip over the moping of everyone else. Controlling when and how your characters are confronted with the death of someone else is a very delicate balancing act.

If, for example, most characters find out and go through their process, but one doesn't learn about the death for some reason, until later on, then the last one to find out generally seems to come across as childish. Especially if they react at all in anger - which is a totally understandable response.

The problems of aftermath in a tale is that though your characters must have realistic responses, they can only have a subset of realistic responses, in a subset of contexts. They can't be completely realistic.

Then, of course, you have the tropes. Depression arcs are the origin stories of so many villains, or anti-heroes, that the reader can yawn their way through what is supposed to be a harsh and gritty time. Over used tropes should generally be avoided like the plague. (Though, they can have their place - especially if you're setting up to subvert another trope down the line).

One of the hardest parts of the aftermath that I find to balance is the lasting impacts. I generally only take a chapter or so to examine the immediate impacts, and review how each character is coping with an event, but they will continue coping in their own way, developing slowly, right up until the last page of the book.

It can become a part of their identity, but that tends to run too close to trope overuse, and endangers your character to becoming "that depressed character". Instead, the more subtle approach of it being in the back of their minds, changing their behaviours in small ways is better. However, changing the character in that way adds a lot of work for the authour, and if you do it right, the reader won't really notice it. They'll acknowledge it if it's pointed out to them, and it impacts the overall image of the story, but it's background noise for the most part.

She ducked her head as she stepped into the limousine behind her charge. Her eyes flicked backwards as she landed on the seat, before the door closed. She pulled her belt on as she reached over and did the same for the senator, who always tried to ignore her rules.

Suzie Drakes, Codename Dragon, Chapter One

In this quote, it isn't explicitly mentioned, but just in these few words you get a first glimpse into the paranoia that plagues Suzie. She always checks windows and doors, and prepares for the worst. The actual cause of this isn't completely addressed until nearly the end of the book, but there are hints. And hints is what a proper aftermath looks like.

Very few people are completely and radically changed by experiencing death - but it does change them all the same.

A Word on Resurrection

Summer breathed in deeply, sighing as she felt the light pass over her face. The light struck her skin, breaking apart as it struck the tiny crystals within it, forming the dust that covered her.

Rejuvenated her.

Her wings twitched behind her, anxious to unfurl.

Summer Garden

One of the greatest temptations in fantasy writing is to ruin all the hard efforts of death by introducing resurrection. The moment you bring in the concept, you need to bring in a whole heap of other baggage or you've made death an uninteresting concept.

You need to set up a framework as to why death is still a terrifying prospect, with rules and regulations that might be ill-defined but need to be satisifying to the reader. You need to say why someone can stay dead, and someone else wouldn't.

You need to do all of this without breaking the narrative flow.

And that... Is difficult.

The simple answer is indeed simple - don't do it. Resurrection is a cheapshot. It is the ultimate deus ex machina. Bringing it into your story cheapens everything else, and can completely ruin it. It is one of those things that has a snowball-like effect that can bring an entire narrative structure tumbling down.

The harder answer is to use it wisely. I can't say that I always have, or always will. Despite my propensity to permanently kill off my characters, I have used resurrection once or twice, like in Summer Garden. However, I don't do it without thinking, and the ramifications every time last for however much longer the narrative continues. If the narrative continues for any decent length of time, I almost immediately handicap the ability, so that the reader thinks of it as a one-off. Anything else is too difficult to deal with.

When generally you want the reader to feel like they're in the moment, they can smell the ashes of war and destruction, feel the heartbreak of exhausted people dragging themselves from battle, resurrection can make it feel like all of that is irrelevant and they're making a big deal of nothing.

It is important to remind your reader that though you may have resurrected a particular character, the ashes of the aftermath are still very real. The simplest way, of course, is the cost of resurrection. Bring back a main character - and kill off two or three of the other main characters. Not side characters, that doesn't have the right impact. Make the resurrection itself feel like the loss. Or doom the entire world. Whatever you decide to pursue, it tends to be a good idea to make your reader regret that the main character was resurrected at all.


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