Facing Mortality: Writing Death and Dying in Fiction

As the winter blues set in for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, above the tropics, I finally caught up to my CapClave 2022 notes. Writing covers the full experience of the human condition, and today, I’ll be talking about something everyone will do, someday, as their final chapter.

The panelists for the titular panel were as follows: Jeanne Adams, Jennifer R. Povey, Dr. Ken Altabef, Mark Roth, and Adam R. Shannon.

Not every story goes there, and not every writer is willing to take their readers to the end.

Struggles when writing death and mortality

  • Showing main characters have something to lose — without killing someone just to motivate the main character
  • Making sure every death, especially one of a main character, actually means something
  • When the real world is stressful, writing death can be harder, and take longer
  • Crying while writing your own scene
    • Some people cry easily, while others can be pushed to tears by other stressors in their own life, or specific factors in the scene that mirror their own experiences
  • Characters left behind can grieve what could have been
    • i.e. If only they’d have let it go, person would still be alive!
  • Setting up a well-rounded character, who isn’t a caricature, who clearly deserves their death
  • Showing cultural differences and values regarding death
  • Examining the para-social reactions, like the reactions to the death of Queen Elizabeth
  • Dealing with the realities of cremations
    • Airplanes have a special cabin for them — they’re not supposed to be in your carry-on
    • Disney has rules against people dumping ashes in the “Happiest Place on Earth” — and security on the lookout for the many, many people who do it anyway
  • When the main character does something true to the character… but so stupid they just have to die. And then you have to find another character to pick up the plot.

Does an author’s own grief help or hinder?

As always, having experienced what you’re writing about can make your words ring truer for those reading.

That said, different genres show death in different ways. In a police procedural, the murder is more of a problem to be solved, while in a murder mystery, there’s usually more emotional impact.

What constitutes a ‘Good Death’ or ‘Bad Death’?

Good ones?

  • Self-sacrifice — as a reasonable fix to the gravity of the issue
  • One that advances the plot in a meaningful way
  • One that gives the character a sense of closure and fulfillment of their mission
  • Redemption — a sacrifice that makes up for earlier mistakes

A Bad One?

  • Gives no closure
  • Fails their mission

That said, tragic heroes are legitimate main characters. Not all characters, even good guys, are intended to have a good death.

Tips on writing grief

  • Grief is not rational
  • Survivor guilt is very common
  • Others are very bad and understand each other’s grief process
  • You can grieve someone before they die
    • Be it from: illness, estrangement, or complications in the relationship
  • Grieving in stories often gets stylized. You can choose to lean into it or explore the messy reality
  • In the US, the messy side of death is often hidden, outside of media
    • The tradition of black armbands/clothing for a time period gave people space to grieve, especially when you could remove them when you were ready to move on. It was an external sign of the internal process.
  • Think about what your characters would use as coping mechanisms
    • Distraction, obsession, avoidance…
  • You can use writing about it as a way to process your own grief


  • Duncan  Idaho’s death in Frank Herbert’s Dune
  • Gandolph’s false death (and Boramir’s) in JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy
  • Necropolis (unsure if Boris Pahor’s memoir of being a medic and prisoner in the Holocaust one or Kathryn Olivarius’s tale of New Orleans yellow fever pandemic and politics was meant)
  • This Mortal Coil by Andrew Doig
  • Wrath of Khan – When Spock says, “I have been, and always shall be, your friend.”
  • The Deadlands
  • Or ask a doctor/medic/paramedic for advice
  • Draw on your own experience
  • Youtube had good examples of full-military funerals

You don’t have to kill characters

All of that said, killing characters isn’t always the right solution. As writers, we often feel pressured to up the stakes, and what stakes are stronger than death? But, that’s not always the right choice.

  • Your characters can pull back
  • They can choose not to fight — use diplomacy, bribery, sneaking, or running
  • They can make a different choice

Have you written about death or dying, or are you planning to?

If you’ve experienced it up close and personal, how much of that makes it into your writing?


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