Defining Death: Vodnik Chapter Fourteen

I’ve already discussed how the actual character of Morena had to change at the last minute during the revision process (check out that discussion here). This is the actual chapter where the transition took place, of course,

For this week’s commentary, I wanted to discuss how I decided to handle death in Vodnik. I knew that I wanted to have the Slovak personification of Death show up, but how did she behave? What was her day to day schedule like? What did she like?

The knee-jerk reaction for me when I think of Death personified is one of two options: The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (from Dickens’ Christmas Carol) or Death from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. For the former, you’ve got a big ominous skeleton in a hood going around freaking people out by being spooky. In the latter, you’ve got the same character essentially, except now you have him do funny things every now and then. Humor plays a much bigger role for Pratchett than for Dickens. Go figure.

I already knew that my version of Death wasn’t going to be the skeleton-in-a-hood routine. Here’s an image Shawn Boyles did for the mythology guide over on Tu Books’ website.

So. Still the scythe, but no hood. I wanted the image of Death to still be ominous. But I also wanted a touch of humor in there, as well.

For me, that came as I fleshed out the character. Gave her some basic human traits (she likes cough drops, she has a sense of humor, she likes American football).

Next question to tackle–how does she get everything done? There are people dying all over the world. What are her boundaries? What happens if two people die at the same time? If she’s just in charge of deaths in Slovakia, how does she keep track of them all? How many people die in Slovakia, anyway? I had to research up some of these statistics and do some basic math for this, then extrapolate some world building based off of that. She’d need to be able to freeze time, for one thing. What would the world be like when she did that? (I took some of my mental image of that from elements of CS Lewis’s The Great Divorce.)

How long can she freeze time? Why doesn’t she do it all the time? Questions questions questions. And then there was the question of how long she’d been doing this. Is Death a job? A permanent position? (That, of course, led to other elements of the book–like Death in the Modern Day.)

It’s important to note here than I am far from an intensive plotter. I’ll write a general outline of a book, and then I’ll flesh it out as I go. (For Vodnik, I was even less of a plotter.) This means that I explore things as I go. My friend Isaac Stewart compared it to set design for movies. You make the facade look perfect, but if you glance behind it, it’s all two by fours and nails. Nothing finished there. This works–but the trick is you have to have all the facade covered everywhere that shows up in the finished product, so to speak.

What this means in practice is that sometimes you’ll be blazing along in your writing, and then you discover there was an area that you left unfinished. You’ve got to go there, but you don’t know what “there” is. For me, that’s when I have to go back to brainstorming mode until I’ve got that ironed out. Often, this results in me having to iron out other places that are affected by the changes I just made to the new section. Part of me thinks it would be better to just plot the whole thing out in the first place, but I know me and I know how I write. I’d inevitably drift off script sooner rather than later, and all that plotting could well go down the toilet.

Did this happen in Vodnik? Some. I had no plans to have Tomas get the manual for Death in the book. And yet it popped up in the middle of once scene. This meant I had to figure out what it was–what was in it, how it worked. I’ll probably have to wait and discuss this at a later time, though. Out of time for today, and this is already late as is. (I blame the Olympics. They’re making me stay up even later than I usually do.)

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