Bringing the dead to life… Why novelists should read obituaries

obitMany years ago, my writer friend Cathryn Atkinson told me she found inspiration for characters by reading obituaries, especially those in the Daily Telegraph. By gum she was right, and I was soon curating my own file of the fascinating dead. I called it my morgue, of course.

Reading obits is still a habit, and not just to discover queer folk. I’m inspired by the way obit writers tackle certain problems we also have in novels.

Physical descriptions

Although famous people obviously get obits, so do obscure achievers.

For the writer, it’s easy to describe a person who is already well known; you just tick their recognisable characteristics. For Elizabeth Taylor, reference the violet eyes, voluptuous proportions and bawdy persona – and that’s enough to summon their physical presence.

But the obit writer often has to describe a person the reader hasn’t seen before. Which is also what the novelist does.

Crucially, they don’t rely on visual descriptions. Blue eyes and a crooked front tooth don’t mean much if the reader doesn’t already have a mental picture. So the obituarist adds another dimension – the sense of what it’s like to be in a room with the subject. One of the earliest entrants to my morgue file was an eminent female chemist who always had a worried expression, as though she feared a catastrophe was happening in the next room. I’ve long forgotten her name or what she was responsible for (alas), but I still know what it would be like to spend time with her. Another unforgettable was the religious leader who had the disconcerting habit of closing his eyes while he spoke.

nynfiller2Dignity, even for villains

The obit’s subjects may not always be nice or heroic.

Take The Economist’s obituary of UK reality TV star Jade Goody. She was infamous for squalid incidents, astonishing ignorance and racist remarks. She was also a shameless publicity hound. The obit didn’t whitewash any of this, but their unsparing portrait also uncovered her battles, hardships, goals and happinesses. The result gives her remarkable dignity.

This is so interesting for novelists. Even if we’re writing nasty characters, they become more potent if we approach them with respect and curiosity.

Back story and context

Obits generally follow a formula. First they hook your interest – tell you why the character is significant, conjure up a conundrum that gets you curious. Then there will be defining incidents from their prime. Details about childhood don’t come until late in the piece. After we have read about the achievements or ignominies, we are shown how the person started with similar stuff to ourselves – parents, a local library or sports ground, school teachers. There they are, just like we were, unaware of their destiny.

It might be peculiar to follow that backwards chronology in most novels, of course, but it’s a reminder that back story works because of context. Deployed in the wrong place, back story will be boring. In the right place, it can be humanising and even powerful.

Are there any non-fictional places you go for inspiration, such as obituaries? Why do you like them? Share in the comments

And PS… if you enjoyed this post, you might like the Nail Your Novel books, especially Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated.

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  1. #1 by Viv on March 24, 2013 - 10:21 am

    Another very interesting exercise is to write your own obit, as if written by first a fan and second by an opponent.
    I’ve also written extra scenes, as viewed by a character not actually part of the story, to try and hone the main text. Case in point was a section of the second of the sequels to The Bet, where I was trying to write a series of court scenes without getting bogged down in procedure etc and turning out a poor copy of a Grisham novel. I wanted to create an almost dreamlike sequence where the character is totally bewildered by all that is going on around, but I needed to step beyond his mind and view him from the outside with a set of biased, unloving eyes (I used a journalist persona, watching and taking notes about the case) so that I could be sure that his behaviour fitted his mental state. When that is eventually published, I may stick those passages in as *deleted scenes* somewhere.

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on March 24, 2013 - 3:49 pm

      Hi Viv!
      What an interesting idea to write your own obit – and a good way to tap into parts of yourself to use for characters.
      A sequel to The Bet? Are these secret scenes that went on afterwards or are they scheduled to be a published sequel?
      You’ve touched on a great point here with your courtroom approach. Often I’ve been put off taking a story in a certain direction because I’m imagining the angles I don’t want to write. Once I’ve realised this, I then try to imagine what I do want to do with the material. Your solution is a terrific idea to present a necessary scene in a new way – especially the dual perspective.

      • #3 by Viv on March 24, 2013 - 4:12 pm

        There are two sequels, written and ready but waiting for a) covers b) the right time. The secret scenes are for the second sequel, written at a point when I was fighting with myself about how to write the court room scenes. They helped immensely, both in terms of clarification of material and also of increasing the sense of claustrophobia and of being stalked.
        Plus, since I am not a lawyer nor would any amount of time spent observing in a court give any greater accuracy, I figured the best way to do a trial was simply to do it from the perspective of someone at the heart of it but who is too traumatised to really focus on procedure (which I personally find excruciatingly boring both the write and to read). The effect is in essence making the perspective very limited rather than omniscient.

  2. #4 by thecleveridiot on March 24, 2013 - 7:47 pm

    This is rather morbidly interesting, considering the fact that I just studied the formula & structure of suicide notes in my forensic linguistics lecture!

    • #5 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on March 25, 2013 - 11:36 am

      Heavens, how sad, gruesome and …. fascinating. Apart from curiosity, what can you learn from them? Do you have to assess whether the note was written by the deceased or whether it might be a fake? Or were you studying from a writerly perspective, aiming to write authentic suicide notes? And how often would you need to do that?
      Please come back and explain…. 🙂

  3. #6 by engridknight on March 24, 2013 - 11:33 pm

    Love this idea, honestly never thought about it! Standing and (((clapping))) – great idea!

    • #7 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on March 25, 2013 - 11:37 am

      Thank you, Engrid. And my thanks to Cathryn for suggesting it! In a curious turn of the fate wheel, she now writes obits.

  4. #8 by Author with Guitar on March 25, 2013 - 12:55 am

    Loved this post. I too have been fascinated by obits. But your post tells me why, and how I might make good use of them for my next book. Many thanks, O Wise One.

  5. #10 by Musings on the writing life on March 25, 2013 - 8:02 am

    interesting idea, I would have never thought of it, but will do it now! I liked the example with Jade Goody, because I tend to write my villains a bit one-sided.

    • #11 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on March 25, 2013 - 11:39 am

      Thanks! When I saw The Economist was publishing an obit of her, I was curious to see what they would write as many of their subjects are eminent achievers. I found their piece very moving.

  6. #12 by Dennis Langley on March 25, 2013 - 12:52 pm

    I hadn’t thought of obits. I like public places, airport terminals, train stations, and shopping malls to find strange people. I look for names in the phone book. Last names make great first names for characters.

  7. #17 by Tamara LeBlanc on March 26, 2013 - 3:51 pm

    I love this. It never occurred to me to read obits for help in writing. You learn something (brilliant) every day!
    Thanks so much for sharing it.
    Have a great afternoon,

  8. #19 by marnamoore on March 28, 2013 - 6:47 pm

    Reblogged this on And One Fine Morning-.

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