I’ve been reading a lot in my nonexistent spare time (In other words, I got sick and read seven books over the course of two days because I didn’t really have much else to do).
The seven books consisted of two series— I highly recommend both of them, by the way. Series one: Throne of Glass as well as its two current sequels and the five novellas that go along with it, by Sarah J. Maas. Series two: the Night Angel trilogy, by Brent Weeks.
The series really aren’t all that similar in any regard beyond the medieval settings, the physical descriptions of all of the big, evil monsters. There are fancy swords and disguises and swashbuckling warriors because—oh, yeah. There is one other similarity: the protagonists of both are assassins. They’re not really known as good people, and they don’t always do good things, and they definitely don’t come out of it unscathed.
And that got me thinking.
When I write, the struggle that my characters face is rarely life-or-death, at least not in a crazy, sword-swinging, action-y way. Maybe that’s why I like reading those books so much—it’s completely out of the realm of what I might normally encounter or write about.
But in the case of both books. They make no show of glorifying violence, or even death. Any time that real blood is spilled, not just a practice dummy broken apart, it really matters. And the emotional scars stay with the characters just as long as the physical ones.
I tend to just write about the emotional scars. Not so much the physical ones (that might change in the book I’m currently writing. Not sure yet).
But I realized something when I was finishing up the Night Angel trilogy. They might not glorify death, but they certainly do make it seem commonplace, almost without the reader even realizing it. And, it’s even more commonplace in the world of books in general. Authors use a sudden death to shake things up a bit.
And that kind of disturbs me, though I’ve been guilty of this several times.
Because the idea of death, or mortality in general… well, it’s manipulative. I’ve never been in a life-or-death situation, thankfully. But people I know have come close, some have come way to close for comfort. Some have even not come out okay, or have not come out at all.
A sudden death does shake things up, a lot. A sudden injury does the same thing. It can even invoke serious changes in a character.
But I’m not so sure that it’s the best plot device out there.
Certainly, the idea of impending doom, or of suddenly-realized-morality is probably the most obvious catalyst for personality change. But there are other ways in which a person’s character can change. And I don’t think that those are discussed often enough.
We authors tend to block ourselves in, with the idea of “________ must happen to cause ______ to happen, and that will mean _______ in the long term.”
It’s a basic outline. Outlines are helpful. But usually, when looking for a HUGE change that they know needs to happen, a writer will select a death. A beloved character, maybe.
But that is, again, manipulative. It’s designed to do what reality TV does—take your emotions and your but-what-if thoughts, and make them a (literary) reality. And I’m just wondering… how ethical is that? There are so many emotions out there to write about. So why despair? Is it so very awful to know that good things happen too?
Well, when it comes to literature, maybe it is.
Because happiness is an emotion that we never want to experience by proxy. We want it directly. Despair, on the other hand…
It’s easier to read about other people’s pain than it is to feel our own.
That said, there are some really good books about it. And what makes those books so good? They have their light points. Because that’s something else I’ve figured out.
Nothing is ever so stark that there is nothing happy left over. And reading the sad books with happy bits and pieces can help remind us of that.