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I'm writing a story where the main character comes back from the dead. The character is fully lucid, knowledgeable and articulate about what has happened.

I want to depict the character as an expert, but I don't have any knowledge/experience of what it is like to be dead or to have come back to life. Also, I don't want to hook this into any of the main religious or spiritual traditions.

The question, in short, is: how do I write a character who is an expert in something that I can't know?

Any help on how to approach this would be appreciated.

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    The title of your post threw me off. I was thinking more of, "I want to have a character who is a brilliant nuclear physicist. But I don't know much about physics. How can I write believable dialog?" That's a very different question from this. – Jay Jun 11 '18 at 22:06
  • @Jay - it's the difference between 'something that I can't know' and 'something that I don't know'. Your nuclear physicist falls under the latter and that's not what I'm asking for. – robertcday Jun 12 '18 at 8:58
  • @1006a - no, just the one expert. I use that word (expert) simply to denote that the character has a body of knowledge that I cannot have - hence the difficulty writing about it. – robertcday Jun 12 '18 at 9:00
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    Related. – Christoph Jun 12 '18 at 13:34
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Since the subject matter on which the character is an expert is specific to the world that you created and not related to any real world knowledge or faith, you already know everything there is to know on the subject. The problem is, there is not yet a lot to know because you haven't invented it yet.

You need to make some decisions about how resurrection works in your world and what are the requirements and limits of the process. Once you have decided those details, both you and your character can know and understand life after death (at least in how it works in your world).

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    @robertcday if you run to any issues trying to create a resurrection system, check out the Worldbuilding stack. We can help resolve specific problems. – Anketam Jun 11 '18 at 18:09
  • Thanks, @Anketam - I appreciate the pointer. Never really done much worldbuilding so I might just take you up on that. – robertcday Jun 11 '18 at 18:17
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    To this I would add that you don't have to be an expert on what you are actually writing about in this case, but it does help if you sound like an expert to your readers. Do some research. read books written by people who claim to have come back from the dead. Look for some common experiences and throw those in. If someone knows absolutely nothing about the subject, it won't matter, but if they have special interest in the subject they'll say "hey, this guy has done his research" and really, that's the best you can hope for. – Francine DeGrood Taylor Jun 11 '18 at 19:09
  • Good point, @Francine. :) – robertcday Jun 12 '18 at 12:11
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If this character comes back from the dead in a fantasy universe of your own creation, then you can invent whatever you want that advances your story.

If this story is set in the real world, then I don't see how you can have the character say anything about the afterlife without either referencing a real religion, or pointedly not referencing any real religion. Like, if you were writing a novel about politics set in a real country in the present time, I think it would be very hard to say "I'm not going to discuss any real political issues".

Similarly, if you say that after death everyone, regardless of what they did in this life, goes to one great drunken orgy in the sky, obviously people of many religions are going to react to that. If you say that people are reincarnated that's going to put off Christians. If you say that there is a paradise and a place of torment you're going to put off Hindus. Etc.

How people will react depends on how you present the story. If I read a story where star ships travel faster than light, I know this is impossible according to current understanding of physics, but usually I just go along with it for the story. In the same vein, I'm a fundamentalist Christian, but I've read stories with versions of eternity that totally contradict Christianity and I've had no problem going along with the story just fine. Unless I get the sense that the story is deliberately attacking my beliefs, rather than just inventing a fictional universe for the sake of a good story, I'm not offended or insulted.

But if you're in a fantasy universe, or if you present your vision of the afterlife as fantasy, then, as I say, you can just make up whatever you want and whatever works in your story. The problem isn't being an "expert" on something, because you're making up everything.

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In addition to all of the good advice about general world building, you have another source of expertise in this subject matter: other characters.

  • Have other characters who have come back from the dead thank your character for having written about the experience so eloquently.

  • Send your character to an academic conference to talk about the challenges facing returned-dead people, based on both his personal experience and his peer-reviewed research surveys.

  • have your character moderate returned-dead.stackexchange.com (only mostly kidding.)

It's not like you are trying to write a mechanical engineer who will stand up to suspension of disbelief for engineers who read your book -- you've got a lot of flexibility to get the audience to believe what you say reality is.

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There's a few solutions I'd recommend.

First, I'd recommend something mentioned by Francine DeGrood Taylor in a comment: research common experiences in those who claim to have come back from the dead. While you state you don't want to incorporate any major religious traditions, we find that there's a fair bit of commonality to draw from because everyone involved is human.

Second, instead of focusing on what he knows, focus on how he acts with that knowledge. In some situations, what you know is important. In others, how you act is important. If you keep your character in the sorts of situations where his actions are more important, then you never have to address the question of what he knows.

As an example, one trope that comes up is a character that comes back with some hidden purpose that drives them which they cannot fully convey to anyone else (except the select privileged ones). In such a case, how they act with their disciples can overshadow the knowledge that they found it upon. Another trope might be that the character comes back bemused at everything. It's well recognized that the fear of death is a major factor in the human psyche. Someone who has been through it might simply find all of our trivial daily frustrations downright amusing.

You can draw from existing real life vocations where the act is more important than the knowledge. Magicians, for instance, make a living on stage where the entire audience knows that if they knew the secret, the magic would go away. The magician still manages to weave magic. Zen Buddhist teachers are known for their ability to teach someone who believes the teacher holds a secret. They will openly state that they have no secret to teach, but are more than happy to leverage your belief that they have a secret to teach you something valuable in your life. Or, perhaps less fancifully, politicians know that the spin is often more important than the content they put in the bills.

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Since you'll have to invent the rules of death and resurrection for your universe, you may as well insure they somehow further your plot. If you watch the Death Note anime, or dig up the manga version, you'll see the protagonist making very clever use of the rules governing not only the deaths, but also other properties of the object that causes them. Well, he is a genius. But the writer's own genius in designing those rules so such a plot would be possible is also evident. And in your case, the rules of resurrection would do the same. DN doesn't do that, although it does feature something perhaps analogous, which is arguably where the character is cleverest of all: the rules by which memories of the notebook can be erased and restored.

But DN had another trick you should borrow too, and that's how much the personalities of everyone involved drives the way all these rules are invoked. You may need to decide on your protagonist's personality before the rules themselves.

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So there is the phenomena of Near Death Experiences, where a person was clinically dead or close to it but was revived and spoke of a feeling of an afterlife experience. There are some common claims among the people who claim this experience that you could use.

On the other side, you might wish to have them explain that their experience was real and very powerful, but the words they use to describe it are inadequate by leaps and bounds. "Heaven" is so beautiful and so joyous, even those words fail to do justice to the experience. Conversely, "Hell" is so terrifying and so nightmarish that the expert cannot begin to describe the site.

A good example of this would be Season Six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where the titular character dies and is resurrected by her friends. She goes about a good chunk of the season in depressed and meaningless state, and posits that although she doesn't know where she went while dead, she thinks it was probably heaven... because it was much better than life.

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You could make him a very difficult person, sort of a "House" type personality. He may be an expert but he generally treats people with disdain as sport and so the amount of knowledge he conveys is quite minimal. You can then make up the rest. Personality types like this are unfortunately out there all through the various professions especially among people claiming expertise, they use it as a cover or to create space from annoying people (eg. Soup Nazi).

If you want a more approachable character you could make it that the character suffers from PTSD about the experience so hesitates to communicate about it and covers it with hostility or even humor. Perhaps he also feels a debt to the other side / after life not to ruin things for them as he'll be going back one day. He may also be an "expert" to others, but maybe he realizes he doesn't know much about it beyond his limited experience, and so doesn't want to talk about it too much because he's confused about it.

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To be clear, is he an expert on the afterlife, or does he just know something about it because he's been there (so, he's an expert, compared to everyone else, who... presumably... haven't been there).

Put another way: are you an "expert" on your closest city, just because you've been there often? (usually, tourist guides will know much more about the "sights" than residents).

I'll assume you mean "expert".

As others have said, make other characters react to him as if he was an expert. Reactions are very often used in this way e.g. make the hero attractive by having attractive girls gaze admiringly; high status, by people deferring; low status by ignoring, treating badly. Etc.

There are other characteristics of an "expert": they will use ordinary terms with technical meanings, that confuse laypersons. They won't define their terms, but just use them to answer questions correctly, (seemingly...) without realizing that their explanations don't make sense in terms of ordinary meanings. This belittles the layperson, and the expert's status. Very importantly, the expert really is making a valid point; just... not communicating it. Listening, you do get a sense of expertise, and that some words are not being used ordinarily.... but you don't know which ones, or what the true meanings are, how they relate, or their significance.

For example, there could be different specific technical meanings for die, pass away, decease, etc.

You can also make him right about a prediction, or masterful in a skill. But this is more a real proving of expertise, that takes some time to setup, and (almost) nevers happens with experts in the real world.

Another approach is how you yourself evaluate experts. How do you know your medical doctor is an expert? ("Dr", role, dress, attitude) dentist, lawyer? Builder, programmer, hair dresser? Maybe you google them, ask other people (esp if they are something of an expert in that or a related field).

When you an "expert" in a film, on TV in a novel, what made you feel they are an expert?

  • Thanks, @hyperpallium. I meant 'an expert, compared to everyone else'. – robertcday Jun 13 '18 at 15:46
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Your circus, your monkeys.

In other words, you're writing, you write the rules. You're probably not going to land on the truth, so instead this needs to come from the conventions of fiction writing.

Here's what you need to think of:

  • Internal logic: If [thing you've said] is true, would this thing you're now saying be true? Does it make sense?
  • What do the trolls say? You shouldn't have to consider this, but there's the world we live in. Are you ripping off another fiction which tackles the subject? Is it consistent, or do the rules change?
  • Hi AJFaraday. Please don't use code blocks for prose (even short pieces of prose). I changed the code block to a quote block, which seems more in line with what should be used here. – a CVn Jun 25 '18 at 16:16

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