Life and death

Things have been quite busy for me lately at work, thus the lack of blog posts.  But things have also been extremely busy on the family farm as well, with my husband up to his eyes in new baby lambs; hundred’s of them.  Lambing is a bittersweet time, because although there are vast numbers of successful births and content ewes going out to the fields with lambs in tow, the risk of death is always hovering above the farm like some invisible, transient being at this time of year.  Lambs die at birth, or get trampled by their mother, or are sickly, or are injured, or get taken by a fox, while the ewes themselves may die during the birth, or prolapse, or haemorrhage or roll onto their backs and get disemboweled by a raven.  And yet despite this inevitable death, there is also a glorious, overwhelming, multitude of life.  Sometimes that wonderful promise of life outweighs the risk of death, and this emotive driver is often used to good effect in fictional writing.

After reading “The Miniaturist” by Jessie Burton recently, I was reminded that a good fantasy novel really does need the threat of death and the promise of life to keep it ticking along nicely. Imagine if “Game of Thrones” didn’t have that ever present Winter is coming hanging over it like a pall of smoke or “The Time Traveller’s Wife” didn’t leave the time-traveller so nakedly exposed to danger every time he travels.  These books would have lacked an edge.  Suspense is all about being on the cusp of disaster, of nearing the edge of the precipice but not quite tipping over, so that your reader is constantly wondering ‘how are they going to get out of this’.  Then when you’re ready to take the leap towards death, you provoke an emotional response in your reader, and hopefully also something unexpected and unnerving.  But there’s also a sense of relief for those characters in the story who live through the hardships and make it safely to the other side.

So here are a few examples of how you might provide a suspenseful threat of death in your writing, while also offering hope that life will go on.

  • Threat of discovery – I quite enjoy those books where one or more characters are hiding something, which if they were discovered, would be fatal.  For example, a character may have some kind of power that they’re not supposed to have, or have possession of something powerful that they may have come across inadvertently or stolen, or quite simply have a personal trait (e.g. political bent, gay, religious inclination, etc.) that is not permitted in your fantasy world.  This could lead to a ‘witch’ hunt to track them down or the characters may be constantly under the threat of treachery.
  • Impending doom – Many a science fiction story has the threat of an asteroid obliterating the planet, but fantasy can use this kind of tool effectively in its own way.  Instead of an asteroid it may be vengeful gods about to wreak havoc for some perceived injustice, or some other unknown being that has shown itself as deadly but moves slowly towards the final confrontation with your characters (think of the ‘nothing’ in “Never-ending Story”), or an unstoppable calamity that can only be halted by the untapped power or personal sacrifice of one of your characters.
  • Invasion – I’m afraid that this is one type of threat that you should treat with caution.  Invasions of massive armies, hoards and beasts have been used successfully by some of the big names in fantasy writing, such as Raymond E. Feist, Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, Tolkien, Robin Hobbs, etc.  However I feel that they have also flogged this particular horse to death in their work, making it difficult for future writers to do something similar with any success.  If you’re planning an invasion any time soon, it may be best to keep it short and to the point rather than dragging it out until your reader loses the will to live.
  • Disease – The threat of catching a deadly illness can be a bit like impending doom, but disease can find its way into a population in unexpected ways and may not necessarily kill off everyone.   Because plagues can be transmitted in different ways this can be a good plot twist because most fantasy stories are set in a time when people didn’t know about bacteria or viruses, so your characters may blame something or someone who is entirely blameless for the disease.  For example, it’s believed that rat fleas spread the black plague, but people didn’t know this and thought it spread from person to person, and many believed that god had abandoned them.  In London the Cholera epidemic was originally thought to be caused by bad air or a ‘miasma’ rather than microbes in filthy water.  Various syphilis epidemics may have been spread by sex, but apart from blaming it on inter-species sex, witchcraft, people from other countries, alignment of the planets, etc. there was also a belief that it was caused by adulterous women, not men.  But you may also decide to create an entirely fantastical disease in your own world that’s spread by carrier pigeons and pick off a few choice characters, while leaving the others unharmed.
  • Age – Age catches up with all of us, but it can also be a threat hovering in the background for your characters.  Their lives may depend on the wealth or good graces of an elderly benefactor.  Or an ageing relative/friend could take his secrets to the grave on how your characters and their world can survive.  Or the only person who knows that your character is innocent is about to take her last breath.
  • Childbirth – Before the advent of modern medicine, childbirth was a lottery when it came to survival and must have weighed heavily on the thoughts of women before and during pregnancy.  Similarly for your characters, being pregnant could be threat enough, if it prohibits them from escaping danger.  But it’s childbirth when a woman is at her most vulnerable.  She is at the whim of the dangers surrounding her.  She is under the threat of being injured or infected by people helping her give birth, even if they have the best of intentions.  And even her own body could kill her.  But because childbirth is an inevitable part of pregnancy, you can gradually work towards a significant climax in your story with that ever present danger of the birth hovering around the expectant mother.
  • Involuntary danger – As mentioned above “The Time Traveller’s Wife” is a good example where a character had no control over the threat to his life, and yet it was his own body’s strange ability to time-travel that was causing the problem – there was no one else to blame – and yet the dangers he then faced were external and unexpected.  This was what made the story so fascinating.    It’s a bit like the boat in the film “Titanic” – you know it’s going to sink but the main characters have no control over it when it does and face innumerable dangers as the waters rise.
  • Walking into trouble – Of course, you may want to  have a character who just can’t help but walk straight into trouble all the time because either they can’t sense danger or can’t help themselves – a bit like purposely walking into the losing football team’s favourite pub wearing the winning team’s jersey.  This can present you with some great chase sequences, a bit of comic relief or a quick way of getting rid of a character.  But if your hapless character is constantly getting themselves into trouble, you can work towards the time when they, or someone with them, ends up in a life-threatening situation.

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