I spend a lot of time thinking about world building.
Which, duh, I’m a fantasy writer. But also, thinking about world building is fun. It’s the fun part of writing, better known as “daydreaming.” As opposed to the not fun part of writing which is known as “actually writing.”
I also spend a lot of time thinking of death. (Doesn’t everybody, she asks?)
And the more I build worlds, the more important I think death is. Everyone dies, right? Unless you’re writing some immortal person or species. But even then, death is important. I would argue probably especially then. Otherwise what’s the point of their immortality if not to ponder the one thing you can never achieve?
But death tells us so much about people as individuals. People as cultures and societies. People as entire worlds.
Even if you’re not writing a fantasy novel, how your characters grieve and celebrate death is an important part of building them as a character, or building their society, or religion, etc.
I’ve been to more than one funeral. And every single one is different. And that’s real life. So, if you’re not thinking about how a culture grieves and what it means about their world, you’re missing an important (and fun!) aspect of world building.
Not sure where to start? What’s important to your characters or their culture? What does their religion say about their afterlife and how does that affect their death cultures? And how does that impact their death rituals. If you have a seafaring culture, I would question whether water plays a roll in their rituals. That sort of thing.
Still not sure? Then think along the lines of the four different kinds of burial methods:
- Earth. This is burying a body. Seems simple, right? But even within this idea there are so many options. Do they use coffins? Do they bury them standing up? Do the compost the people? Or plant a tree above them? Why do they do these things?
- Fire. This is cremation. Of course, there are many different ways to cremate a body. Do they use a crematorium, where everything is hidden from sight? Do they burn the body on an open-air pyre? Do they smash the skull? Pick up the bigger pieces of cremains to put them in the urn with the ashes? Or do they not even use an urn?
- Water. Burial at sea. If you’re on a ship, then this is probably what happens to you, right? But do they attach something to you to make you sink? Or put you on a raft to float leisurely away?
- Air. An oldy but a goody. This burial practice isn’t really in use that much anymore, and it was never very popular outside of Tibet. But an air burial is when you put a body on top of a cliff and let vultures eat it.
If you have a culture that uses all four, well then, we’re just talking about the Avatar now, aren’t we?
But in all seriousness, if you pick one of these methods, what does that say about your culture? What does that say about their religion? Their beliefs of what happens when they die? And what do all of those details say about them as a people, and your character as a person?
The more you think about these sorts of details when building your world, the deeper and intricate the world as a whole will seem to the reader. And when that happens, the reader will follow along willingly, happily losing themselves in the world you’ve built.
So, hi. I’m Sarah. Tell me how your people die. It will help me understand how they live.
Sarah Ahiers has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University and lives in Minnesota with her dogs and a house full of critters. She has a collection of steampunk hats and when she’s not writing she fills her time with good games, good food, good friends and good family.