News Ticker

[GUEST POST] Peter Orullian (TRIAL OF INTENTIONS) on Death and Honor in Fantasy Fiction

peterorullianPeter Orullian has worked in marketing at Xbox for nearly a decade, most recently leading the Music and Entertainment marketing strategy for Xbox LIVE, and has toured as a featured vocalist internationally at major music festivals. He has published several short stories. The Unremembered is his first novel. He lives in Seattle.

Death and Honor in Fantasy Fiction

by Peter Orullian

Life has its convergences. Sometimes these are happy affairs. Sometimes they’re less happy. And sometimes they just are. The latest convergence in my life: My father-in-law passed away as I was finishing the second book in my fantasy series. And the one thing got me thinking about the other.

For context, the journey that has been “book two” has been a challenging one. I lost a year of writing to my day job. I work at Xbox, and it’s been a busy time. Then, I went through an editor change. Lost a lot more time there. All of which is to say, as I neared the very end, it seemed the last thing I needed was another challenge.

My father-in-law had liver disease. He was too old to be a candidate for a transplant. And he wouldn’t have accepted one anyway, precisely because he’d have been damn sure a healthy liver went to someone who’d get some mileage out of it. We’d known he wasn’t long for this world. But things went south rapidly those last few weeks.

At the same time, we learned that my mother-in-law has Stage IV cancer, metastasized. Even with chemo, her prognosis is spoken of in “months.” If felt like insult to injury. No, that’s not right. It felt like injury to injury. Still does.

And the very important but unrelated deadline running parallel to these family realities was finishing editorial revisions on “book two.” I’d also had a couple of beta-readers late in the game, and I’d planned on incorporating some of their feedback.

I was doing my best to balance all of this, and then, just four days before my self-imposed manuscript deadline—my new editor has been extremely understanding of my life circumstance—my father-in-law passed away. We made flight plans—our extended family lives a thousand miles away—even as we helped plan a viewing and funeral, etc.

Time dilated. I made every effort to compartmentalize my life. I was home all day. I sat long stretches at my computer, going at my book with a will. But this is where some of the true convergence takes place.

In fantasy, people die. Some are “bad guys.” Not necessarily evil, but obvious antagonists. Rarely are these mourned overmuch. But death also takes innocents, as well as more “heroic” characters—more on that later. It’s a device. When right for the story, the death of a character you’re emotionally invested in has real impact. It gives the story resonance it wouldn’t otherwise have.

As I was working those last few days from start to finish through my manuscript—right up to my father-in-law’s funeral—I came upon a few such deaths in my book. And what I realized is that I couldn’t treat them the same way as I had before. Something in me had changed.

It didn’t involve removing these deaths, writing those characters back to life. And it didn’t mean twenty new pages of thanatopsis. What it did mean was regard. These characters—some of them—had demonstrated a measure of honor in their lives, and in their deaths, and it needed to be on the page . . . if only in the level of grief shown by those left behind.

It got me thinking about death in the fantasy genre more broadly. It’s something I won’t be able to read the same way as I did before. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m no shrinking violet—I write death. And I don’t think every death warrants this investiture of grief. I’ve already given a few examples of this. But death is raw. It’s potent. And in some instances, if left un-regarded, I think it falls down in fiction. At the very least, it loses impact. It’s a missed opportunity to evoke that resonant emotion in the reader.

Then there’s honor. My father-in-law was an army veteran. At his funeral, I was seated at the head of the casket. Just as mourners began to arrive at the grave site, a member of the Honor Guard arrived and stood at attention at the foot of the casket. He must have stood that way for fifteen minutes while everything was made ready to begin the graveside ceremony. He stood stock-still. And while it could be that I was projecting my emotions onto the young man, I would bet my bottom dollar that in his heart he was feeling respect for a fellow military man who’d served faithfully, and now could rest. He held a kind of reverence I don’t think you can fake.

Later, after things were ready, words spoken, another member of the Honor Guard, standing twenty paces distant, played Taps. You should maybe know about me that music matters. Really matters. I’ve heard Taps before. Not just in movies, but in cemeteries. And still . . . it was different this time. This was for a man I knew. Few things have stirred my heart as that song did that day.

Then, the bugle-player took position in front of me, and the two young men proceeded to fold the flag that had been draped over my father-in-law’s casket. They did so with immense respect. Never rushed. They performed the task without having to watch their hands. And again, my heart was fit to burst.

Finally, the bugle-player turned to present the flag to my mother-in-law, saying these words:

On behalf of a grateful nation and the United States Army, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.

That’s not verbatim, but it’s close. And at that point, my heart had reached its limit.

Part of the reason is that military service is something I have extreme respect for. I didn’t serve, myself. But my grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Armenia, fleeing genocide at the hands of the Turks. They were lucky. They escaped. I sat at my grandmother’s feet as a boy and learned what it meant to prize freedom. My ancestors were beheaded by Turks for speaking their own language. And it goes downhill from there.

So, when my grandparents had a family of their own, and when World War II hit, my uncles (and my dad) signed up for military service without a second thought. It was deep in their bones to fight for the freedoms they’d come to America to enjoy, including freedoms of speech and religion.

My grandparents had a large family, mostly sons. And one interesting strategy these many sons adopted as they prepared to serve, is that they went into different branches of the military. The thinking was that in a bitter war, where death was common, spreading themselves out might mean a higher survival rate. That sounds a bit morbid, maybe, even though I can see a kind of practicality about it. My grandparents had seen genocide. They were practical.

My point is that I believe what my father and my uncles did was honorable. With the thought that some of them may not come back, they did what they could to optimize the chance that some of them would survive. But that necessarily means they also faced the very real possibility that some of them wouldn’t. They did it anyway. Damned heroic, in my book.

They all survived.

Years later, when all these men were elderly, and I was old enough to show the proper respect, I listened to their stories. And their stories were amazing. My dad served in the Coast Guard, piloting amphibious crafts that took troops to beaches in the Pacific theater. My uncle Peter—my namesake—served in the Navy; among other things, he was a pugilist in the ranks, and a fighter craft engine mechanic. My uncle Dave served under Patton in the army. His stories are gut-wrenching. It goes on. And the tales they told me were by turns funny, heartbreaking, and filled with the kind of emotion that makes you stoop to right a flag that’s toppled on a grave as you walk the cemetery on Memorial Day.

On a recent trip to Hawaii, the thing that meant most to me was spending time at Pearl Harbor. I walked in when its doors opened, and I was the last one out. It mattered to me to see it all. To linger. My Uncle Bill was there when the Japanese bombed the installation. I needed to pay the right respects.

These men, each of them, taught me about honor. How to be honorable. I don’t think everyone must serve in the military. But I do think honor ought to be universal. Or at least the attempt to be so.

So, then, as I was making my final push on the book, and I was writing about the death of characters who’d had a measure of honor, which included sacrificing on behalf of others, death in battle, I couldn’t let it pass without doing something to mark those moments.

Yes, I know that it’s a second-world I’m writing. And it’s not necessary to remark over every death. But reverence for a life lived and sacrificed with honor seems right to me. It might just be a few moments shared over a fallen friend. It might be the act of burying someone. It’s not a chapter’s worth. But again, if it’s absent, for me anyways, there’s now something missing. And at the very least, a missed opportunity. It might be little more than a few lines. But I’ll tell you this much, my favorite writers stir me—build such great depth in their stories—with just a few lines. I’m not suggesting I’m perfect at this. But I think about it now. I’m aware. I try to show regard.

And again, it got me thinking about honor more broadly in genre fiction. This is something I’ve been rather aware of in literature for a long time. Not as a caricature of the ideal. Characters need flaws. But a character who is, on balance, dishonorable won’t evoke that resonant emotion. Not from me, anyway. I just don’t care about them. Are they interesting? Maybe sometimes. Do I give a tinker’s damn if they die? Not a stitch. Might even hope they do.

It reminds me of a recent conversation I had with Steve Diamond at a convention. Steve’s a fellow author; you should look him up. Anyway, he and I were out in the cold one night at a con, well after midnight, talking about . . . well everything. But one of the things I remember most was our conversation about death and honor and how we both, after all is said and done, really appreciate the heroic in fantasy fiction. By which we didn’t mean knights in shining armor, or Dudley DoRight.

No, what we realized we both still love about the genre is when a character puts it on the line for someone else. Might be big stakes, like nations and ideologies. But just as meaningfully it might be a buddy who needs help.

I also think sometimes this genre I love so much finds that death is the only sacrifice worth mentioning. But what about the willingness to die. Like my father and my uncles. And even bigger than dying is sacrificing your life. What I mean is, consider the person who doesn’t die, but lives on in the face of extreme circumstances, who spends their time helping others. What about the single parent? Or, the one who lives a life feeling marginalized, but shows up every day anyway. Maybe because they’re brave. Maybe because if they don’t, someone else will suffer.

That’s damned honorable. Damned heroic.

And it has every bit as much a place in fantasy as magic and battles and swords.

I get how high-minded that might sound. I don’t mean it to be. And who knows. Maybe most fantasy readers don’t want to read about heartbreaking choices that don’t follow from the end of a blade. But I tend to disagree with that. Both can live inside a story. I’d go so far as to say they both should live inside a story.

Putting it on the line for someone else. Could be to save the world. Could be to make sure someone has food and a roof. The death that follows these sacrifices could be of the body. Or of the soul. Or of unrealized dreams and hopes. But each of those deaths is honorable. Heroic. Because when a character puts in on the line, quite often those efforts meet with bad ends. And that’s when you have death. And honor.

Death and honor. Things I hold in regard.

%d bloggers like this: