Our theme for this month was death, which might seem like an odd theme to encourage young writers to focus on. Is it healthy for Christians to dwell on death? Isn’t the difference between us and the world that we don’t focus on death in the way that it does?
The cross obviously stands central in Christianity. But it isn’t just Christ’s death that is central to the Christian faith. It’s our own deaths as well. Our spiritual death in Genesis 3 sets the whole plan of salvation in motion. And the reality of our physical death urges us to make the most of our time on earth by winning others to Him.
I once heard a pastor say that his goal was to teach his congregation how to die well. Death is, after all, the final test in our lives and the point where we need to have either accepted or rejected the claims of Christ.
Death is central to the Christian faith. By extension, therefore, it ought to be central to our storytelling. Although not all stories that Christians write need to encompass death, it ought to still have a prominent role overall, and when we use death in our stories, here are three ways it can be done biblically.
1. Death Ought to Show Us the Value of Human Life
At first glance, this may seem oxymoronic. How can death show the value of human life?
This arguably depends on how authors decide to use death in their work. Many authors have used death for the reverse effect: telling stories where armies of thousands of nameless individuals are crushed without remorse, or stories where a character’s death is brushed past without impacting the surrounding characters. However, as Christians, a proper view of death ought to lead us to present death in a different manner.
Sierra has already written an excellent article this month on how to portray grief in writing, so I won’t rehash her points here, other than to say that we show the value of human life when we accurately describe how much the loss of someone hurts those around them.
Particularly in war stories, death is often trivialized. One common trope is that the enemy is made into faceless goons without names. Stormtroopers wear masks for a reason. Armies are left nameless and faceless so that the audience forgets about their humanity and thus more readily accepts them as evil. If we actually see the humanity of both sides, not only does it make war more complex, but it makes battles more brutal and less fun.
This isn’t necessarily always wrong. But I think it’s an issue we ought to consider as storytellers when writing battles. If we depict the enemy as nameless and faceless, is that portraying the enemy in a biblical manner? In real life, we too often dehumanize people we don’t like, and this is just another example of that. A robust Christian theology must allow us to portray enemies who are evil, but who are also human. It is too easy to ignore or forget about someone’s humanity, and whether this happens in fiction or in real life, the result is the same: human life is trivialized. We need to seriously reckon with this as storytellers when portraying war.
2. Death Ought to Remind Us of Our Mortality
In many ways, our culture has tried to isolate death from our everyday lives. The elderly used to live with their families, who would take care of them until they died. This made death an ever-present reality and gave children the opportunity to care for their parents like their parents did for them.
Today, however, we all too quickly ship the sick and elderly off to hospitals or nursing homes where we can deal with death in our own terms outside of our own turf. We confine death to a couple institutions and pretend it won’t be existent in the rest of our lives. We forget we are mortal and our lives are short.
We can do the same thing in writing as well. This is why I don’t like war stories where everyone I care about survives until the end of the book. Although it may be a relief as a reader, it isn’t realistic. And it subconsciously reinforces our natural tendency to believe that death could never happen to us—at least not until we’re seventy or eighty. But death can happen at any time and to anyone.
This applies to non-war stories as well. Reminders of death and our own mortality are still incredibly helpful and necessary. Death is just as central to reality as life, and good storytelling should remind the reader of this. As Jess’s story this month depicts, death is non-discriminatory and strikes the young as well as the old. The more readers are reminded of the ever-present reality of death, the better equipped they will be to handle it in real life.
3. Death Ought to Reveal the Consequences of Character Choices
In good novels, characters undertake experiments in living, where they decide to abide by a certain set of principles. Throughout the book, readers watch as the characters take their experiment in living to its natural end. Generally, poetic justice implies that virtuous experiments in living lead to success and wicked experiments in living lead to disaster.
This doesn’t just apply to a novel’s conclusion. For characters that do not survive until the book’s end, their deaths also ought to reveal the results of their experiments in living.
Perhaps death is a natural consequence of a character’s experiment in living. For example, if a character has been pursuing a path of vengeance and anger, and he is killed in the midst of his pursuit, that will reveal the tragic result of vengeance. Alternatively, if a character has taken advantage of the poor his whole life, killing him off with a mob of people he’s oppressed is pure poetic justice. In both of these examples, the characters’ deaths demonstrate the consequences of their choices, and by doing so, advocate virtuous living.
Death isn’t always a result of negative character choices, though. Perhaps a hero decides to sacrifice himself to save someone else. Perhaps a character has been struggling with fear and cowardice the whole book, and when he eventually fights against the enemy, he is killed, but he recognizes that dying in battle is better than hiding in cowardice. In both of these scenarios, death can be a satisfying conclusion to a noble character arc.
However you use death, the last moments of your character are crucial. So much of life is about preparing ourselves for our final moments. So in your character’s final moments, who does he reveal himself to be? Use that to make death significant in your stories.
Writing as a Christian
Writing as a Christian doesn’t necessarily mean shying away from the dark aspects of reality. Rather, we are called to shine the light of Christ upon those dark areas and exemplify how Christians should view them.
We don’t need to cheapen death, shove death into an isolated corner, or view death as proof of the meaninglessness of life. Instead, let’s view death as full of meaning because it shows us how meaningful the rest of life is. Death doesn’t have to be the end; in storytelling, it can be the moment of revelation, where a character’s righteousness or wickedness is fully unveiled and manifested to the reader in a final moment of reckoning.