Sorry for missing last week. When I should’ve been posting this, I was at the San Diego Comic-Con, hanging out in the Geek & Sundry lounge and watching the Welcome to Night Vale panel (I even got to ask a question about writing). And the G&S folks gave me a free copy of the Zombies: Keep Out! board game and a card game called Love Letters. And Felicia Day smiled at me once as she walked past.
Y’know, in retrospect, I’m not really sorry I missed last week.
But I am finally caught up on my sleep. I was exhausted for a while there.
Speaking of which…
I write a series set in a post-apocalyptic world. It was first put out by a small press that specializes in end-of-the-world fiction, and I’ve met a bunch of authors who work in that genre and related ones. Needless to say, I’ve read a lot of these books and stories. I’d have to guess close to a hundred in the past five years.
I have seen a lot of people die on the page.
I’ve characters die of disease or injury. Seen them shot or stabbed. Some have been crushed. Many have been torn apart by zombies—both classic slow ones and the runners. A few people have gone peacefully and with no pain… but not a lot of them.
On a semi-related note, for a long time there was a joke in comic circles that no one stayed dead except Bucky and Gwen Stacy (who’ve both been resurrected in recent years). It’s one of the things that made some folks point to comics as low-brow, pulpy writing, because villains and heroes would always return with elaborate tales of how they’d avoided death… again. The new term tossed about is death fatigue. Readers are just plain bored with overhyped “deaths” that are reversed in twelve issues or less.
What I’d like to blab on about this week is sympathy fatigue, also sometimes called compassion fatigue. It’s a medical term that refers to when doctors, nurses, and caregivers have become so drained by the death and suffering they see that they just… well, can’t feel sympathetic anymore. Constant exposure has desensitized them. I had the (very awful) experience once of visiting the “death row” of an animal shelter, and the woman who mass-euthanised the cats and dogs admitted she didn’t even look at them anymore.
Readers and audience members can feel sympathy fatigue, too. After watching countless people die, the carnage just fades into a background hum. It no longer carries any emotional weight. How often have you watched a horror film with an audience and, after a certain point, people just start laughing? Characters on screen are stabbed, tortured, crushed, and decapitated, and you and your friends are giggling. Maybe even cheering.
How do I keep people from laughing?
Let me get to that in a kind of roundabout way…
A bad habit I’ve mentioned before is naming every character. I think some time in the past an MFA professor or writing coach offered some advice about names and it went through a dozen iterations of the telephone game. Now there’s a (thankfully small) school of thought that says every character should have a name. That guy at the bus stop. The cook behind the counter. The woman in the leather jacket.
When I give a character a name, I’m telling the reader that all these people are important. There’s a reason she’s Phoebe and not “the blonde” or “the woman in the leather jacket.” A name tells the reader to take note of this person because they’re going to affect the story. If it turns out Phoebe has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot, it means I’ve distracted the reader. And distractions kill the flow of my story.
When this idea gets mixed with death, it creates a pattern you’ve probably seen before in stories. We’ll get introduced to a random person, be told a bunch of character stuff about them, and then, eight or nine pages later… they’ll die. Usually their death will be connected to the larger threat, if not the larger story. Giant ants, Ebola, vampires, terrorists–whatever the actual protagonists are dealing with, these poor folks will stumble across it and be wiped out. In some books, this can happen four or five times. Introduce a character, kill ‘em. Introduce a character, kill ‘em. Introduce a character, kill ‘em. Introduce a character… well, you get the point.
The idea here is that I’m showing my readers the widespread nature of the threat, or perhaps the ruthlessness of the killers. And it should carry emotional weight because I spent a couple of pages making Phoebe or Wakko or Dot feel like real people. From a mathematical, by-the-numbers viewpoint, this is all good, right?
Catch is, though, my readers are going to notice this pattern really quick. Just like they’ll notice that I’m naming background characters who have nothing to do with the plot, most readers will realize I’m just introducing characters to kill them off. So they’ll stop investing in these characters as a way to save time and effort. It’s a defense mechanism. They just stop caring.
And once the reader stops caring, well…
Perhaps the worst thing this means is that once my readers have been conditioned by all the meaningless deaths, they’re going to be numb to the important ones. One of my leads will make a heroic sacrifice or that jerk supporting character will finally get what’s coming to her, and my readers will gloss over it the same way they barely registered the last six or seven deaths. My whole story gets lessened because I’ve lessened the impact of death.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s okay to have people die. I’m a big fan of it. But I can’t use cheap tricks to give these deaths weight. I need to be aware of who my characters are and what their deaths are accomplishing within my story structure. If I just need someone to die gruesomely to set the mood or tone, I don’t need to make them a major character—or to convince my readers he or she is a major character. And if I’m going to kill off one of my major characters, her death shouldn’t read just like the nineteen deaths that came before it.
Because when I kill off someone important, I want you to care.
Next time, I’d like to offer you all a simple choice.
Until then, go write.