18

Death as a person is commonly known to any reader of the "Discworld" series from Terry Pratchett. Also death appears in the series "Supernatural" as one of the apocalyptic riders. Another approach in this case is not known to me.

The thought of death as a "person" is something that follows me through my whole writing life. But there is always the one question: Is death as a person only good for a small funny part of the story (something like "taking out the pressure of the scene") or can death as a person be a serious part of the story?

This is the question to you.

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    Terry Pratchett has written whole books with Death as main character. So he's certainly good for more than a small part of the story. – celtschk Jun 18 '18 at 8:16
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    Meet Joe Black would be another example on the serious side. – s.alem Jun 18 '18 at 10:52
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    @celtschk IIRC Pratchett made a statement long ago that Death would never be the main character of a book, not while he was actually wearing the mantle of Death. E.g. in Reaper Man, he is no longer Death, he is Bill Door. In Mort Death becomes increasingly less Death (and Mort more so) as it goes on. In most books he is at best a major character, not the main character. If somone can find the original media where Pratchett expressed this rule, it is probably very relevant to answering this question – Lyndon White Jun 18 '18 at 11:17
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    The reason why Pratchet's anthropomorphic death is funny is because it breaks expectations. Most authors who personify Death do it in a very serious manner. ᴛʜᴇ ᴡᴀʏ ᴅᴇᴀᴛʜ ɪꜱ ᴅᴇᴘɪᴄᴛᴇᴅ ɪɴ ᴅɪꜱᴄᴡᴏʀʟᴅ is a parody of other authors. – Philipp Jun 18 '18 at 13:13
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    For some (read: many many many) examples of death as a character (main and otherwise), check out: tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheGrimReaper – Benubird Jun 18 '18 at 15:24
21

Short answer: You can do and write whatever you want. You can make almost anything work.

Long answer: Death is an idea, the belief that there is more to a human than flesh and blood, and that when we die, something mythical happens. Casting this idea into a character allows others to interact with this character, and also allows the writer to make comments on the image people have about death. The same thing can be done with any idea, and it used to be common practice to think about ideas as persons. The roman and greek gods are probably the most prominant example, but most polytheistic religions follow this idea to some extent.

This also leads to some prime examples about good stories with interactions between characters like this, Homers Ilias are probably the best known example of mortal characters interacting with idea-based characters, although these incorporate a lot of additional lore that progresses the characters.

Incorporating an idea into a character allows interactions that are otherwise not possible, it allows the sea to be explicitly angry at a character, it allows a character to chase the magic fairy that grants eternal youth or be hunted by the demon that will stop you from being reborn in the reincarnation-cycle.

So yeah, characters like death can be good and interesting. However you might have problems expanding the character from the original traits that define it, thus making your characters slightly stale. So if you do, make sure to expand their backstory.

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    As far as expanding the character goes, Pratchett went there too. Death has some very funny scenes, sure. But this is also the character who adopted a small girl, who watched her get married and have a daughter, who was (after some human-scale troubles) excluded from his granddaughter's childhood, and then who watched his adopted daughter die and says (to his companion at the scene of her death), "YES. I COULD HAVE DONE SOMETHING." (Soul Music) When Pratchett hit his flow, he was really heartbreakingly good. – Graham Jun 18 '18 at 18:30
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    Something mystical does happen! We turn into a whole huge pile of bacteria LIKE MAGIC!!! Well, OK, some worms, too, sometimes - but mostly bacteria. And gas. Very stinky gas. But it's all very mystical. Or, at least, misty. Well, OK...maybe "sloppy" is a better term... Look, just go with cremation and it's all done with much faster and nobody has to hold their nose. Thanks. – Bob Jarvis Jun 19 '18 at 12:08
  • "the belief that there is more to a human than flesh and blood, and that when we die, something mythical happens" No it's not - or rather, you can absolutely write death like that if you want, but you don't have to. – Cubic Jun 19 '18 at 13:26
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Discworld aside, as I'm sadly not very familiar with it, I can think of at least two examples of Death personified being an important, serious character:

  • "The Book Thief", both the original novel and the film adaptation. While Death is not the main character, he is the narrator, and his role is treated not only seriously, but sympathetically to a degree - at the end of the book, he notes "I am haunted by humans".
  • The classic movie The Seventh Seal, and its famous climax in which the protagonist plays a chess match against Death, with the prize being his very life and soul.

So yes, Death personified can certainly be a major, serious part of a story.

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    Another good example would be Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" comics, where Death is the main protagonist's sister, and a curiously cheerful and compassionate Goth girl who takes her job to provide final solace and meaning to everyone equally very seriously. – Michael Borgwardt Jun 18 '18 at 11:42
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    @Michael There's actually two whole min-series with Death as the main character: Death: The High Cost of Living and Death: The Time of Your Life – mattdm Jun 18 '18 at 13:14
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    @mattdm And also a cameo appearance in The Graveyard Book as "The Lady on the Grey". – Graham Jun 18 '18 at 18:21
  • Death is also pretty awesome in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey. Much better options than chess out there. – lly Jun 19 '18 at 13:30
8

The personification of various forces of nature and existence is quite ancient—it arguably is the first way that people conceptualized of many of what we more often now think of as abstract concepts—and is often treated quite seriously. Many polytheistic religions have an actual god of death, such as Hades for the Greeks. Death is also personified in the Bible's Book of Revelations as a ominous figure riding a pale horse.

What makes modern readers disinclined to take an anthropomorphic depiction of Death seriously is not that there is anything intrinsically amusing about it, but the fact that it's anachronistic—it doesn't match modern sensibilities. But humorous parody, as per Pratchett, is only one of the possible options. You could also use it to invoke a mythical past, or to critique modernity (or any of a range of other authorial choices).

7

Death as a person has always reminded me of this Mesopotamian tale:

A merchant in Baghdad sends his servant to the marketplace for provisions. Soon afterwards, the servant comes home white and trembling and tells him that in the marketplace, he was jostled by a woman, whom he recognized as Death, and she made a threatening gesture. Borrowing the merchant's horse, he flees at great speed to Samarra, a distance of about 75 miles (125 km), where he believes Death will not find him. The merchant then goes to the marketplace and finds Death, and asks why she made the threatening gesture to his servant. She replies, "That was not a threatening gesture, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra."

something inevitable that with his never-ending looming presence fills the heart of men with dread.

6

I think in order to incorporate Death as a character into your story, you will need to decide how your story views death as a concept in itself. Terry Pratchett created Death to act in a humorous way, and it feels as if dying is merely an inconvenience for most of the characters.

However, if you take for example Hades, Keeper of the Underworld in Greek mythology, he is generally portrayed as passive rather than evil; his role was often maintaining relative balance, and he was also depicted as cold and stern. In the same way, death was viewed as a natural part of the order of life. Whilst people still resisted death, it was also accepted as inevitable, and everyone respected it equally (which is why it was such a grave insult when Achilles mutilated Hector's body).

So Death can potentially be written for laughs, or it could be evil, or even a sulky teenager, but the personification of Death must match the concept of death within the story. It would not work to have Death as an evil tyrant that wants to kill everyone in order to have dominion over them if those same people don't view dying with any sort of fear.

Death as a character is always just a personification of how people within the story view dying. Different concepts can be done in exactly the same way, such as the scariness and uncertainty of puberty being represented by a Hormone Monster; as long as the character reflects how people in the story view whatever it represents, I can't see why it wouldn't work.

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    The Greeks, of course, had a distinction between Hades (God of Being Dead) and Thanatos (God of Dying). Hades is cold and impersonal - he maintains balance and refuses to be swayed by all but his wife - whereas Thanatos is malevolent, hating (and hated by) mortals and gods alike. Flipping those roles could result in the "Being Dead" god as an evil tyrant whose ability to enact his schemes is limited, with the "Actually Dying" god as a balance-keeper that people do not fear. – Chronocidal Jun 18 '18 at 13:03
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    @Chronocidal the flipped roles sounds a little like Anubis and Ammit, where Anubis would weigh the heart of the dead to see if they are worthy to pass into the afterlife, and if not Ammit would devour the heart and they would exist in eternal unrest. – Mike.C.Ford Jun 18 '18 at 13:19
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    "Terry Pratchett created Death to act in a humorous way, and it feels as if dying is merely an inconvenience for most of the characters." That's certainly not my impression from the books. It's not like there's a pleasant afterlife shown, or reincarnation, let alone a return to life. – mattdm Jun 18 '18 at 20:25
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    @mattdm Yeah, I think Mr Ford misunderstands what's going on in myth and literature. The Greeks hated weakness, large areas of which were decay and dying; Achilles in the Odyssey makes clear that the land of the dead is loathsome, however nice they tidied it up with the Mysteries; Achy's mutilation is an expression of his fury, not anything 'grave' or 'sacrilegious'; and Death is a personification of the author's view of death, not the characters', which might mistakenly fear a benign force or, less often, welcome an evil one. – lly Jun 19 '18 at 13:46
  • @mattdm I'm not sure if you've ever read Mort, where Death is one of the central characters, but it shows that those who die in Discworld can both go to an afterlife and be reincarnated. – Mike.C.Ford Jun 19 '18 at 13:53
6

Take a look at the Incarnations of Immortality series by Piers Anthony.

In the series, Death and other supernatural forces (Time, Fate, War, Nature, Evil, Good, and Night) are portrayed as actual characters throughout the books.

Each book's protagonist has to assume the "office" of one of these forces, and the books deal specifically with their struggles as they try to perform their duties.

Although the entire series is written in a humorous vein, the characters themselves are serious and represent the entire point of the plot.


To reply to a comment made by @LyndonWhite under the question ("Pratchett made a statement long ago that Death would never be the main character of a book, not while he was actually wearing the mantle of Death."), it seems obvious that Pratchett never read this Piers Anthony series. ;)

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    I believe that Pratchett was saying that Discworld's Death would never be the main character of a Discworld book. – John Doe Jun 18 '18 at 15:59
  • @JohnDoe Ah, perhaps! Context here would help. – Jason Bassford Jun 18 '18 at 16:17
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    The Anthony stories are mostly about BECOMING the incarnation, not as much as BEING the incarnation. That is, each novel starts with someone assuming a mantle, and learning the job. So I would say they are in agreement with Pratchett's statement. – Chris Cudmore Jun 18 '18 at 19:56
  • @ChrisCudmore In each story, there is very little time in which the people are merely mortal. (Perhaps a single chapter.) They very quickly assume the job. Then, they have to learn the tricks of the trade while they are the incarnation. (It's them not knowing what to do that lends some humour.) Most of the time, the other incarnations they associate with have already settled in. (And, if I recall correctly, one character actually switches roles from one aspect of the three Fates to another.) – Jason Bassford Jun 18 '18 at 22:03
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    I thought the whole series was quite good - until God. It just kept rehashing a lot of the backstory which was tiresome. I get that it could stand on its own but I felt it was just too much. I didn't know until I followed your link that the final one had been written. I thought it was done - I don't remember 'night' being mentioned at all in the regular series. – CramerTV Jun 19 '18 at 0:25
5

Anthropomorphic personifications of death are quite old, and the older ones focus on the frightening aspects of death. Look, for example, at Oscar Wilde's The Young King:

From the darkness of a cavern Death and Avarice watched them, and Death said, ‘I am weary; give me a third of them and let me go.’ But Avarice shook her head. ‘They are my servants,’ she answered.
And Death said to her, ‘What hast thou in thy hand?’
‘I have three grains of corn,’ she answered; ‘what is that to thee?’
‘Give me one of them,’ cried Death, ‘to plant in my garden; only one of them, and I will go away.’
‘I will not give thee anything,’ said Avarice, and she hid her hand in the fold of her raiment.
And Death laughed, and took a cup, and dipped it into a pool of water, and out of the cup rose Ague. She passed through the great multitude, and a third of them lay dead. A cold mist followed her, and the water-snakes ran by her side.

Death is one of the four Riders of the Apocalypse. Milton in Paradise Lost describes Death as the son of Sin and Satan, Satan having raped his daughter Sin.

Thus, as you can see, Death Personified can be taken seriously and dramatically. I think Terry Pratchett was actually first to treat Death in a humorous way, moving away from the traditional traits of cruelty and enjoying humanity's suffering to curiosity and love for humanity.

5

I can think of several examples where Death, as a personified, anthropomorphic being, defines the story. Roger Zelazny's Donnerjack, is all about Death, the story starts and repeatedly visits his domain and he touches everything and everyone in the tale. In Neil Gaiman's Endless Death plays small but very serious and pivotal parts in several of the stories. My personal favourite is the film Meet Joe Black in which Death comes to town and learns what it is to be human.

Death personified can and often is a very serious character and can have as large or as small a part as you feel they should. Discworld proves that Death can also be played for comic relief if you do it right and can be a very fun guy to have around again for as little or as much of the tale as he is wanted for.

4

The 2002 Twilight Zone series had a rather humorous take on a personification of Death. In this episode, Death has suffered depression from all the... well... death he's caused and doesn't want to do his job. While it is a serious look at why Death needs to happen (Death comes to an ER surgeon and that night there just happens to be a very serious accident), the humor is very black in that Death keeps remembering all the things he has done and is exhausted by them. I haven't seen it in a while, but there was one point I loved where Death explains he has had these feelings since the Black Plague and attributes the thoughts to the fact that he was really overworked that night.

Another interesting version of Death was Andrew from Touched by an Angel. In this form Andrew is one of many Angels who serve in the role of Angel of Death. Here, his job is less of killing agent and more of an "Orientation Guide" to the Afterlife. He does get a little miffed that people have the worst possible reaction to him when he appears to them in this role as several people fear him initially because of the title, though often times, the death may be imminent but preventable (i.e. A person who is suicidal will get a visit from Andrew who explains he's there for them if they go through it, but they really shouldn't. Or he might appear to people with murderous intentions to appeal to their humanity and beg them not to kill a person.).

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