There are a lot of euphemisms that we use surrounding death, and I sometime wonder if that was always the case. When death was much more a part of peoples’ lives, just a natural thing that happened eventually and often sooner rather than later to everyone, did people find so many ways to avoid directly confronting the topic? It is interesting to note that while in today’s paradigm of capital punishment death is seen as the punishment, in many ancient societies death was just the byproduct of the punishment, which would be intended to cause all kinds and levels of suffering for sometime impressively (and to the modern eye, grotesquely) protracted periods of time. In modern society we have managed to isolate ourselves from death to a startling degree, and I probably could (and maybe should) write a post addressing that topic and its implications, but that’s not what I want to talk about today. Instead, I want to talk about some of those euphemisms.
It’s almost considered too blunt to say that someone died. Instead, we might say that they passed away, or that they passed on, or that they lost or gave their lives. Some might argue that the difference between those wordings is slight, incidental, even meaningless. After all, in cold facts the end result is the same. Yet those words are different, they mean different things, and we use one or the other to convey different meanings – this is especially true of the last two examples. The difference between losing a life and giving a life may be subtle, and yet it makes such a difference in how the person and the event is perceived. One makes the death a tragedy. The other makes it heroic, because it expresses that there was a choice involved, it gives the individual agency.
That apparently subtle nuance is incredibly powerful. It is the difference between being a victim, someone to whom events happen, and being a hero, someone who makes events happen. Success or failure, however those might be defined, don’t matter – rather it is the act of choosing, of consciously, deliberately enacting a particular course of action. We see this in both modern and ancient literature, and both modern and ancient history. Why is Hamlet a tragedy? Because he’s arguably not an active participant in his own story; events happen to him, not because of him. Why is the stand of the 300 at Thermopylae still talked about in heroic terms some 2500 years later (aside from the fact that they had a fantastic public relations expert in Herodotus)? Because they chose to stand their ground in that place and at that time, for a cause in which they believed, and that is compelling to us still across all of that intervening time. Nor do we need to look back through the millennia to see examples of the power of agency; they happen all the time today.
Writers of fiction understand this, and I think most readers understand it, too, even if it is to varying degrees of conscious comprehension. Deliberately making choices in your writing about whether events will happen to or because of a character, how active a participant the character will be in their own story, is perhaps one of the most powerful character tools an author has. I think that Samwise Gamgee may have expressed it best when he said “the folks in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t.” That’s agency, and it is the difference between heroes and victims. The hobbits are heroes not because they became great warriors, or because of the feats they achieved, or the events in which they participated. They are heroes because, while at the start they are victims to whom events happen, but the end of the story they have become heroes who chose to keep going and put themselves in danger for the sake of their friends and for the Shire and for Middle Earth.
Sometimes, I wonder if news writers could use with a reminder of the power of agency, or perhaps that they know it a little too well. So often I read articles that present everyone as victims, as if the whole world is just a giant tragedy, and no one has any agency within it (nor is this limited to cases wherein death may be involved). Perhaps this goes back to the idea that apocalypses sell good advertisements, but it seems to take something away from the people who are featured in such articles, especially if they died in what could be construed as a heroic way. A police officer responding to reports of gunshots and being killed in the process did not lose her life – she gave it. People make choices, and while sometimes those choices are constrained, sometimes the choices we make when under those constraints are the most important of all.
But this post is not supposed to be a rant about how modern news media seems intent on perpetuating a cult of victimhood. It is about agency, and not in the bureaucratic sense. Whether we’re talking about you, or your characters, making choices, being an active participant and driver of the story you are telling (remember, you are the protagonist of your own story) is incredibly powerful. Not giving yourself or your characters that agency would be, well, tragic.