The Nonfictional Mourning of Fiction

Oct 7, 2016

I tend to avoid books that have a WARNING: YOU WILL PROBABLY CRY label. I'm not a fan of books that are inherently sad. Scratch that--I'm not a fan of books that will make me feel sad. I've had some experiences with books that left me feeling broken and sad, like my ribs are a dam and there's a hole in my chest and it's all waiting on the edge to burst into tears and notes of melancholy. I can spend a whole day (or more) tense and down in the dumps because a sad book took its sadness and, like a needle, shot it into my veins. I don't like books that are sad because they make me sad, plain and simple. But there's one particular element and procurer of sadness that gets me the most and hits me the hardest and lingers the longest, and that's when a character dies. The thing is, these characters aren't real, so therefore they didn't really die. So why do we--why do I--care?


Let me start off by saying that death scares the ever loving shit out of me. I may love the color black and some macabre things, but actual death--that ceasing of existence--terrifies me and puts me in a bad place. I'm scared of my own death and that of people (and animals) I love, and I try to imagine them no longer existing and being here--I try to imagine myself like that--and I can't grasp it, but I can't stop it, either. When it comes to death, we are all helpless. And that's the scariest thing in the whole entire world. So death really isn't my favorite thing and I can be very sensitive to it. (My mom forced me to go to my cousin's funeral a couple years ago, but otherwise I don't do that shit. I don't do funerals and I sure as hell don't do cemeteries.)

I once wrote a poem about books for one of my college classes, and it had the line "fiction that we wish was non." And I think that resonates a lot for readers--myself included--because we so desperately wish for the stories we read and fall into and love to be real. That we could actually go to those worlds. That we could meet those characters. That we could live those stories. But the sucky and painful and cold hard fact of the matter is that fiction isn't real and it isn't non: it's fiction.

If you ask Google to define fiction you'll be given three responses: "literature in the form of prose, especially short stories and novels, that describes imaginary events and people;" "invention or fabrication as opposed to fact;" "a belief or statement that is false, but that is often held to be true because it is expedient to do so." In short: the shit ain't real. Fiction may be based on or inspired by truth, but if it's a work of fiction then it's fiction. There's no Hogwarts, there aren't any vampires in Forks, there will be no Hunger Games this year or the next, there's no Night Court, and there's no island with a talking pig's head on a stick.

And yet, fiction feels real, and those feelings are very non and very real. I feel for characters and I know them and they're my friends and enemies and family and everything. I swoon when they swoon, I laugh when they laugh, I cry when they cry--and when they die, a little piece of me dies, too. The question is why? Why do I give a damn when someone who isn't real officially ceases to exist? There's no grave here in the real world for them, no casserole dishes and processions and flowers and trash cans full of Kleenex because someone is mourning them. There's just me and my stupid, mortal, human feelings mourning the death of someone who wasn't even here to begin with and who I only knew for x number of pages.

That's because, though fiction isn't real, it very much is. Why do you think people read? We read to escape to other worlds and be swept off our feet and go on adventures we can't always (or possibly) go on in the real world and to feel. There are always people who scoff at books and people who read them like they'll starve to death if they don't, and they just don't get it. A book is a movie with more everything: more details, more plot, more connection, more feeling. It's a high you'll never get off of, a bottle fulls of words you'll forever be drunk on. That's what's so nice about fiction and books and stories: you can't escape them, and they never really leave you.

But when a character dies, that's the ultimate end. There's a certain sort of bittersweetness that arises when a book comes to an end: no more new stories from that world, no more knowing what those characters are doing and how they're doing. It's over, but you can still imagine and dream about what those characters are doing this very second. But when a character dies, you can't. You can't imagine what they're doing right now because they are dead. You read that death--and felt it and experienced it and had it tattooed on your soul--and you can't unread or forget it, because that's not how death works. Death is the end, death is final. And when the grim reaper tells a character it's time to go, you can't stop them. That character will go, and they'll take a piece of you with them and leave it on the page like the stain of a teardrop--and you'll be left with your feelings and swollen eyes.

Maybe it's just me and my fear and hate of death, but I don't like it when a character--especially a main or well known character--dies. I guess it's a good show of the author, though, if I can read a book and know a character enough to be so thoroughly gutted and shattered when they die. (Because there are also books where characters die and I don't really care or feel anything.) But I can't go through that. I have to be in a mood where I can handle that--or think I can. Some books broke me, and I don't like to feel like that. So I'll go into some books with hesitance or wait to read them if they're wearing that warning label. Because it hurts and I don't want to be forced to give a character a permanent goodbye when I could say "goodbye for now" instead, and when all I'm left with are my feelings and tears and constant shouting of why why why did this character have to die.

Dr. Seuss said not to cry because it's over but to smile because it happened. It's confirmation that all books come to an end, and that, when that end is reached, there's a bittersweet symphony playing. But sometimes there's more bitter than sweet, and that bitterness is twinged with the utmost sadness and fissures of pain and hurt and sorrow. Fiction may not be real, but there's got to be something there if we can feel the things about fiction that we do. We wouldn't mourn characters--friends--if they were just ink on paper and another story to collect dust on our shelves. We mourn characters because we care about them, because they're lives on paper and another story to collect love in our hearts and souls. It's fiction that we so desperately wish was non (well, maybe with a few alterations). Though if you were to ask the heart of a reader, I'm sure you'll be told with ferocious certainty that fiction is, in fact, non.

How do you feel when characters die? (No spoilers for books, please!)

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