Wednesday, April 3, 2013

World Building A to Z: Diseases and Death

This month, I'm sharing examples I've come across in world building and establishment of setting. Today, I will examine disease and death. Hope this post won't be too depressing (another D-word!). 

Disease: What is the function of disease in a story? A disease can enter the gateways of a world to indicate a parallel of another disease in our world. Seeing the English elite falling ill and dying from the Spanish flu in Downton Abbey made me think of the awful news stories I'd heard years ago about people getting sick and dying from the H1N1 flu. Also, the writers of Downton Abbey used the Spanish flu as a plot device to kill off Lavinia, Matthew's sweet fiance.


Disease in its presence and aftermath can also indicate the collective conscience of a population. 

In the presence of disease: For the record, I personally don't view infertility as a disease at all, but in the movie Children of Men, an infertility epidemic threatens to make the human species extinct. You'd think people would be more neighborly and kind to one another at a time like this, but no. 

In the aftermath of disease: In Ray Bradbury's THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, we see how chicken-pox, an "Earth" disease is transmitted to the Martians, and yet most of the colonists don't show guilt or remorse about how their presence has caused mass genocide of an entire species. 

Death: How do people in other worlds experience and view death? Sometimes death is a finality- the character is considered kaput once they've passed on. 

At other times, a character merely moves onto the next level when they die. In Alice Sebold's THE LOVELY BONES, after her brutal murder, Susie watches, from her personal heaven, how her loved ones cope with her being gone. Although Susie is dead, she still has fears, especially when her killer is free and living among her family's community.

In the movie Pan's Labyrinth, Ophelia's death is tragic to the maid who mourns for her. But we see that Ophelia had to die so she could be reborn to reclaim her identity as a princess of the underworld. 

Sometimes the dead return. In Ying Chang Compestine's A BANQUET FOR HUNGRY GHOSTS, a YA collection of ghost stories set in China, those who have died under unjust circumstances seek revenge by haunting the living as ghosts. 

Can you share other examples of how death and disease are depicted in stories?

29 comments:

T. Drecker said...

Death and disease are difficult topics, but there are some amazing books out there. The last one I read, THE MONSTER CALLS, left me in tears. Great posts!

Nicole Rivera said...

John Green's The Fault In Our Stars is a book all about disease (cancer) and death. Viewing both through the eyes of young people, the book offers a wonderful perspective on living fully and how that means different things to different people.

Thanks for picking such an awesome theme for your A to Z challenge! You can count me as a new follower!

Rosalind Adam said...

I've read a few novels that have used the post World War One flu epidemic as a plot strategy. It killed more people than had died in the war so I believe.

Rosalind Adam is Writing in the Rain

Medeia Sharif said...

I'm going to add A BANQUET FOR HUNGRY GHOSTS to my wish list. I already read THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES.

Frances Stiles said...

Banquet for Hungry Ghosts sounds good. I'm here from the A to Z...enjoy the challenge!

Melanie Schulz said...

I'm going with a classic: The Stand by Stephen King. Truly disturbing.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Hi, Cynthia,

Fantastic thought-provoking post!

One book comes to mind .. It's a classic that I had read many years ago on college and never forgot... Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment... It is riddled with the plague and so many are dying. The mc falls in love with a food girl who turned into a prostitute to support her family. She contacts the plague and the mc is devastated... Excellent, gut-wrenching story.

Miranda Hardy said...

I love ghost stories! Anything involving the dead seems to be fascinating these days.

Trisha F said...

In the Wheel of Time series as the world is swallowed by darkness, the land itself rots and dies. :)

Jolie du Pre said...

How much time have you got?! I'm a huge zombie lover. Death and disease is big in the zombie genre.

Ella said...

I love what you featured! I'm curious how World War Z is going to do this?! I haven't read the book...

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

This post made think of the TV show, THE WALKING DEAD (love it!) and the concepts of what it means to live and what it means to die, etc.

By the way, love the title of your blog! :)

Pat Hatt said...

Yeah they sure can make for some compelling books, but that h1n1 thing was a crock.

John Wiswell said...

It would be amazing if Children of Men's fantasy-disease made everyone appreciate each other's company more while life was still possible. Of course, that would sap the conflict audiences fetishize, so it's not plausible, but I would have gotten a kick out of the friendlier endtimes.

Can't think about the effects of death in fiction without coming across Stephen King's The Stand. The mass deaths do to super-flu are like the cocoon its many protagonists are prying themselves out from.

Damyanti said...

I prefer stories where death is a finality. :)

Mina Burrows said...

Hmm...Legend and a ton of zombie movies like Resident Evil. Even the Walking Dead

Julie Luek said...

Disease is like instant thriller stuff. I think most people fear diseases-- the kind that are common and devastating as well as potential airborne type diseases that can become the element of suspense and race against time of movies and books. And of course, death-- of relationships, physical bodies, dreams-- all stuff protagonists deal with. Good D words!

S.P. Bowers said...

I need to catch up on Downton Abby. I've only watched part of the second season. Come on Netflix, put it on streaming already.

Elisabeth Kauffman said...

nice post. I made up a disease for a bit of flash fiction once. It was the first time I'd ever really put something like that into my writing... and now I'm kinda obsessed!

Empty Nest Insider said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Empty Nest Insider said...

Brian's Song was a wonderful true story about friendship based on the Chicago Bears football player Brian Piccolo's courageous battle with cancer on and off the field. It told about his close relationship with teammate Gale Sayers, and still makes my tear up over forty years later. James Caan and Billy Dee Williams starred.

Great choice for "D" Cynthia.

Julie

Empty Nest Insider said...

Oops that's me tear up. It took me two tries and I still couldn't get it right. Sorry about that.

M Pax said...

I'm in the process of world building right now. You gave me some interesting fodder with this post. Thanks :) Happy D!

Nick Wilford said...

Death makes for such a powerful presence in many books. I don't think killing any character should be done lightly. Disease epidemics can be a big part of world-building, ie how they deal with it and who is left after. I'm enjoying your series!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

The ending of Pan's Labyrinth was heartbreaking though.
I killed a major character once. It was the most difficult thing I've ever done as a writer.

Jay Noel said...

When you look at disease from a world history standpoint, it's amazing how we never think much about the major impact it has on events. Just incredible. Look at the downfall of the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans because of the diseases the Spanish brought with them. Or even the American Indian tribes getting small pox.

deathwriter said...

Death of a character in story is usually a wake up call for other characters or a wake up call for the person who is dying. I've mostly read nonfiction books about death, and I've read a lot of them. Heck, I even wrote one:)

I think the fear of death is also a great motivating element for a character. I think the film "Ordinary People" is a great exploration of the fear of death, guilt around death and the aftermath of it all.

J.L. Campbell said...

Hi, Cynthia,
Interesting theme for the challenge. I haven't written a novel yet in which disease plays a major factor. Very interesting discussion.

http://jamaicankidlit.weebly.com/

Cynthia said...

Thanks for commenting, and for sharing your recommendations.

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