Dealing with Character Mortality

mortalityI just saw the movie trailer for Logan and, while I’m excited for the movie, I’m also dreading it. Wolverine has long been a favorite character of mine. In fact, I probably have been a fan for more than thirty years. That makes the theme of the movie somewhat melancholy for me. It faces the aging and perhaps even death of someone dear to me.

That may sound a bit strong for what is in reality a fantasy. A fictional character. You might even question my grasp on what is real and what isn’t.

But, I ask you to consider this: characters from books, television and movies offer something real people often can’t. You as the reader/viewer get to experiences the highs and lows with these characters and you often get the chance to experience their most intimate thoughts, dreams, nightmares and feelings.

Those are things that can be very difficult to experience in real life, either because living people are unwilling to share them or unable to (last time I checked, telepathy is not common, just as an example).

As a reader/viewer, that means I have come up with my own coping mechanisms to handle what can inevitably come. One mechanism might be avoidance; if you never read the story where the character grows old and passes on, you never have to feel the pain.

As an aside, I would argue that if avoidance is your method of choice, you are robbing yourself of something important. But that’s just me.

As a writer, I have to approach mortality from a completely different angle. And when I’m talking mortality of a character, I’m referring to an important character here. There are those characters who are not key to the story. They may be one-of or only background noise. I think different rules apply to them.

No, when looking at mortality of a major character you have to be respectful of the emotions your are invoking. Treating a major character’s death as unimportant is stealing something from the character and those readers who cherish that person.

One of my favorite series of all time is the Harper of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey. One of the characters, Robinton, is the Masterharper of Pern. He grows in importance throughout the series, both to the other characters and to the readers. We get to live alongside him and experience many of his successes and failures. And we see him grow older as the series progresses.

Eventually he retires to a cottage by the sea and we only get to see him occasionally. He is still treated as the much-loved father/uncle/grandfather and our view of him changes as we see him through the eyes of those who love him best. He grows more frail over time and eventually passes away.

There is no sugar-coating his decline nor are we given cheap outs. This once-powerful man (arguably the MOST powerful man on the planet in his prime) is prone to the same human frailties we all are. We, the readers, are allowed into his life at its end and we are allowed to feel the sadness of his failing body and eventual death.

When the time comes it is both expected and as shocking as the passing of one of our own family.

Just as it should be.

I’ve addressed this same mortality in my newest book, Mik Murdoch: Crisis of Conscience. Without giving too much away, Mik is faced with the very real possibility his father with die. He struggles with the knowledge that, despite his great powers, he may be powerless to stop that death.

As much as the book is for Young Adults, I don’t want to lessen the experience of death for my readers. Kids are smart. Many have had to deal with tragedy in their lives. To take shortcuts would have been a cheat.

It would have been easier to write, but it would have been a cheat nonetheless.

How do you go about handling mortality in your characters? Do you have your characters age or are they forever young? Do you have them ride off into the sunset, leaving their future to our imaginations or do you give them a definite ending?

I’d love to hear from you.


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