Death and dying in the post-apocalyptic novel: Easy does it?

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So chances are if you’re writing a post-apoc novel there’s going to be a fair amount of death.Perhaps this isn’t a universal constant of the genre, but in general mortality is one of the prime subjects of such dire times.

It dawned on me pretty quickly upon writing my first apocalyptic short story that one of the main challenges for someone writing in this genre, or really any genre that commonly deals with mortality, is how to not have your audience become desensitized to death. Even  ‘dramadies’ like Shaun of the Dead (a movie, I know boo, hiss) manage to balance the absurdism and satire of the zombie-pocalypse with the tragic losses of loved ones. Despite the satire they still managed to evoke tears (yeah I cried at the end so what) at the tragic deaths of loved ones.

If you go all Mad Max and have everyone constantly blowing people away with sawed off shotguns in spiked shoulder pads, all the bite is taken out of the reality of mortality. But inevitably many characters, usually some key or main characters, will die. (gasp!)

Given that the apocalypse is a brutal world to live in, I feel a certain level of commitment to the reality of the tragedy of death in my writing. But at the same time, you need to afford yourself the room to let your characters and your readers feel the emotional repercussions of loss. You don’t want to get melodramatic with long death speeches and effusive emotional exchanges as someone lay dying, but you also don’t want everything to be bullet-in-the-brain oh we hardly knew ye.

The tragedy must be felt in the minds, choices and lives of your surviving characters. Survival is everything in the end times, but it does not come without its fair share of survivor’s guilt. (Or maybe if you’re going that direction, the lack thereof in a character for whom the ends always justify the means!)

All Quiet on the Western Front is perhaps one of the best written examples of how to make death surround your characters and yet only become more powerful to the reader with time. The scene where Paul Baumer is stuck in no man’s land with the dying french man he stabbed is one of the most reverberating scenes I have ever read about death. A man he killed whom he has never met is probably the most powerful death scene in the entire story (debatable, I know.) Though it is a World War I novel, its apocalyptic in its own way. It certainly feels that way.

Have death change your characters. Be it death of loved ones, strangers, or  new companions. That is the reality of death’s influence on life. make it real in your story.

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