It’s not a hot take to say that death isn’t generally a good time for anyone involved, and yet stories often feature the personification of death as a beloved character. From Discworld to Sandman to the cartoons about a Jamaican Reaper, we seem to love making Death a sympathetic character, or at least a cool guy to hang out with. This week we examine why that is, along with how best to use Death as a character in your story. Plus, you learn what game is best for challenging the reaper man when he comes calling.
Generously transcribed by Patrick Hanratty. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast, with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[Opening song]
Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren, and with me today is..
Oren: Behold, mortal, I am here to take you into the great beyond, the next step, the pearly gates, depending on your belief system, unless you can beat me at chess, or limbo, sometimes. I’m not good at either at those, so you’ll be fine. Don’t challenge me to a game of Scythe, though. I’m legitimately good at Scythe. As long as I don’t get Saxony. I hate Saxony.[Laughter]
Chris: Oh, very fitting.
Oren: Oh, that’s a good point, actually. Because we’re talking about death [comically stretches out the word death]. The person, the personified of Death, as it were.
Chris: Have you actually seen a story where Death pulls out some kind of contest?
Oren: Yeah, The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy.
Chris: Oh, ok.
Oren: I think that’s actually the only one I read. Discworldsort of has it as a joke. It mentions that people challenge Death to chess games sometimes, and Death is like, “All right, I mean I’ll do it, but it’s actually impossible for me to lose, because of the laws of the universe, and I’m actually very bad at chess.”
Oren: Which is kind of funny. There’s like a joke there, where he’s like, “I don’t actually know where the pieces are, or what they do, but the universe makes me win, because you’re dead and you can’t get out of it by playing chess.”
Chris & Wes:[Laughter]
Wes: I thought you were nodding to Bill & Ted’s Bogus…Journey? It’s the sequel to Excellent Adventure, and I think they do limbo. It was going to be chess, but they end up playing Battleship.
Oren & Chris:[Laughter]
Wes: Which playing Battleship with Death, I think is a pretty fun idea.
Oren: Look, Death is obviously really good at games by now, if this is actually how your world works. So, the key is to pick a game that is as luck based as possible. Challenge Death to a game of War.
Oren: The card game, which is literally just drawing to see who gets the higher card. Death can’t be better at you than that, unless Death is manipulating fate, in which case none of this matters anyways.
Wes & Chris:[Laughter]
Wes: It’s the illusion of control.
Chris: Monopoly is pretty much the same [Laughter].
Oren: Yeah, honestly, I would rather die than play Monopoly, so at that point, eh, eh
Wes: Monopoly burn!
Oren: Oh, got it, my hot Monopoly takes right here.
Oren: I know a lot of people feel that way about Settlers of Catan, but I actually like Settlers of Catan, so if Death is open to Settlers of Catan, I think I’m in business.
Chris: I like Settlers of Catan, if you take out the robber.
Wes: What if the robber is Death?[Laughter]
Oren: Oooh, [laughter], he’s always stealing my wheat, with that scythe of his. Ok, here is a question for the panel: Does the personified Death, the character because we are assuming they are a person of some kind in this story, do they actually kill people? Or are they facilitating a natural process?
Chris: I’ve only seen it facilitating a natural process. If they kill people, that’s a little disturbing, because if somebody gets super injured [laughter], their neck breaks, Death doesn’t come..I mean, that would be cool if they could heal, but I guess you could say Death comes and breaks the person’s neck. I’ve never seen that depiction, actually.
Wes: Yeah, I don’t know, either. Death will be personified in some kind of deathly visage, and maybe plant life will die around it, so it’s murdering plants?
Chris: There is Final Destination, where Death is actively trying to kill protagonists. Even then, though, the whole premise is that they cheated death, when they lived when they were supposed to die, and so it’s unclear if Death was trying to kill them in the first place? Or if Death was only trying to kill them because they cheated, and so now Death needs another way for them to die.
Oren: So, there are a few scenarios in which Death actually kills people, but they are very uncommon. The only two examples I can think of off the top of my head are early Discworld, back before Death was the face of the franchise. In The Colour of Magic, Death just straight up kills somebody. He wasn’t going to die. Death was mad and killed him.
Chris: Yeah, but that’s in The Colour of Magic, and so does it really count?
Oren: Absolutely not. Nothing in that book is real.
Wes & Chris:[Laughter]
Oren: And Terry Pratchett clearly changed his mind, because originally in early Discworld books, Discworld was just a fantasy spoof. It wasn’t really its own story, and it leans really hard on that, and so Death in that story was just supposed to be funny, because Death was like, short-tempered and irritable. So, that’s all Death was, but as the story grew and it became its own thing, Death was slowly retconned, and then by the later books he’s clearly just facilitating a natural process.
Chris: I think that’s also why Discworld’s Death looks the most like the classic Grim Reaper, is because the whole idea is that you create humor by having a classic Grim Reaper and then making fun of it. Which normally in most stories a classic Grim Reaper would just be boring, and so we don’t want to do that anymore.
Oren: Supernatural also had a similar thing where in Supernatural, they introduced the concept of Reapers who literally kill you. You won’t die unless the Reaper shows up and kills you. And they do it based on some, bizarre, like that person’s supposed to die now. It’s not really what you could call a natural process, because it won’t happen if the Reaper’s not there.
They do that in Supernatural, though Supernaturalis a monster hunting show, but even Supernatural eventually succumbed and introduced us to Death himself, who is one of the four riders and is as tradition, the cool one.
Wes: Yes. Very important.[Laughing]
Oren: Good Omens does the same thing. It’s got the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and three of them suck, and then there’s Death, who was cool. And even in Supernatural, we introduced the Death who is basically facilitating a natural process, and like becomes at least a quasi ally of theirs. And the reason is it’s more interesting. That’s why every show does it. Because if it’s like, “Oh, you mean Death is bad? Wow. I never would’ve guessed!” [Laughter]
Wes: You always wonder with the Four Horsemen and stuff like that. You put these other entities up there on the same horses as Death. And if Death is out to get you, Death wins. Full stop. Why bother with other Horsemen? If you have Death, who’s a bad guy. It’s just over. No one wins.
Chris: I would say the same thing about, again, Death being an asshole who goes around killing every person on earth [laughter]. What you’re creating is a problem that feels like it’s a plot hook, but it’s not solvable.
Oren: It’s incredibly bleak.
Chris: Right? We have this superpowered antagonist who we can never defeat. That’s just not very fun.
Oren: Hot take, death is bad enough in real-life.
Oren: I know. Right? So, in fiction we create scenarios to make it less bad because death’s bad. So, maybe we can take some comfort in these versions of Death where he is not as bad. I think that’s fine. I much prefer that to the edgy version. I see some people talking about, of like Death, just going around, giving people heart attacks, because otherwise we’d have overpopulation or something. It’s like, oh God, miss me with that, thank you![Laughter]
Chris: So, one depiction of Death I’ve seen, because again, sometimes people go as far as making Death sexy or attractive. And Sandman, it is a version of that, but a particularly funny one is Joe Black, which is basically a movie that’s an excuse to stare at Brad Pitt.
Oren: I mean, I mean….[Laughter]
Oren: Oh, this is a young Brad Pitt, too. Wow.
Chris: He even has beach blonde hair, which is kind of funny looking on him.
Oren: He’s got roots. That’s kind of a neat look for him.[Laughter]
Chris: And the idea is that Death is socially awkward and needs to be taught the ways of the world.
Oren: The ways of love, perhaps?[Laughter]
Chris: Yes, including, what is this thing you call human love? [Laughter]. So, of course, we have a hot lady in the movie, who’s also obviously supposed to be audience insert[Laughter]
Oren: 10 out of 10, no notes![Laughter]
Oren: Quality concept!
Chris: And the movie’s pretty long and has extended shots of Brad Pitt. The acting feels fairly similar to how he plays Louis, actually, in Interview with a Vampire. It’s a little stilted.
Oren: He looks a little bit like Louis.
Wes: Yeah, he does.
Oren: Funny Death story, real quick. Because the Netflix adaptation of Sandman is coming up, and we haven’t seen that yet. Because this is being recorded before it airs. We’ll probably have a show on it later, but one of the things that has racist people mad, is that Death is being played by a black woman, and she looks great from the clips I’ve seen her in. Looks fine.
Chris: Yeah. The clip I saw, she looks exactly what Death in Sandmanis supposed to be, which is just a really nice, attractive woman who’s just very pleasant to meet.
Oren: Yeah, that seems to be what they’re going for, and they have succeeded. But, of course, the racists are mad. So, there was this very funny exchange where Neil Gaiman was, I guess, with the patience of a Saint, trying to explain to some racist online, why this wasn’t a problem. And the person was being like, “Your illustrator, who illustrated Death, would be very upset! How dare you?!” And Neil Gaiman, was like, well, I mean, I asked what he thought, and here’s his reply. He posted it on his blog, and he likes her. So, I was like, okay, was this scripted? How did you walk right into that one?[Laughter]
Oren: Anyway, that was funny. That made my Internet morning. I do find it funny, that Wes pointed this out and I had not thought of this before, but if you look at the Four Horsemen, you got War, Famine, and Pestilence? Why are those bad? It’s because they cause death![Laughter]
Chris: Yeah. One of those things is not like the other.
Oren: It’s like having four things that are: matches, gasoline, grenades and fire. All of those things are there to cause fire. I guess, grenades are, and I messed up my analogy, but you all got it, right?[Laughter]
Wes: We all got it. Yeah.
Wes: It’s true. There’s no like eternal torment. “I’m not gonna let you die, Horseman.”
Oren: Also, here’s a question. Death, single omnipresent, or nearly omnipresent being, or a franchise?
Chris: What’s the tone of the story?
Oren: I don’t know, whatever you want it to be. Use your imagination.
Chris: What do you see when you hear the word franchise? That specifically evokes a comedic feel, but you could have a franchise like system that is not called a franchise. We’ve got many Reapers, for instance, that is still real creepy. If you wanted to do it.
Oren: Yeah. The word franchise is biasing the question a bit. Basically, you have your choice between, is Death a single being that is almost everywhere at once, like Discworld or Sandman, or are there a lot of deaths? Because, there are a lot of people, and other things that die. So, there would need to be deaths all over the place, and that’s your Dead Like Me, or On a Pale Horse has a similar premise to that. And Dead Like Me is a little bit on the comedic side, I guess. So, it’s more of a drama.
Chris: Yeah. If you want a protagonist to be Death, but you need the protagonist to not be super duper powerful, then you basically have to make it a multi-person system. Both On a Pale Horse and Dead Like Me have a protagonist that’s Death, or one of the Deaths. But I think otherwise, the advantage of making it a single individual is giving Death character, because a bunch of people is more faceless. Whereas, if you attribute a single person to it, then you can give Death character traits that are interesting and then associate them with Death.
Oren: As opposed to, if there’s a lot of Deaths, it’s like, well, this Death is like that. That could be fun, but it doesn’t make a grand statement about your world.
Wes: And, what you’re gonna have, like a rogue member of the death faction, who’s just not doing his job?
Oren: If you want to have Death as a protagonist, but keep the whole Sandman or Discworld type Death, there are ways to do that too. It’s just more challenging, right? Like in Discworld, when Death is the protagonist, he tends to go up against other cosmic forces as his opponents. Like the Auditors are a big enemy of Death and they are like, if Cthulhu was really obsessed with your taxes or, you know, Hades where Thanatos is basically Death, and he’s even got a scythe and he’s hanging around with the other gods, so works a little bit better there.
Chris: Now, I know in Discworld, that Death has a granddaughter?
Oren: Oh boy. Yeah, that’s complicated.
Chris: How does that work?[Laughter]
Oren: It’s been a while, but if I recall correctly, this all starts in the book, Mort, in which Death recruits an apprentice, but Death already has a daughter at that point. And I don’t remember if it’s ever explained where she came from, or if she’s just around. And his apprentice is this guy named Mort. And, of course, the story’s all about them and frankly, her role in it isn’t very good.
This was still pretty early in Discworld. So, Pratchett was still learning about things like relationships and how not to make the woman just kind of a passive object in them. But, as a result, due to some shenanigans, Mort and Death’s daughter, who I’m sure has a name, I just don’t remember what it is, get together, and then they leave Death’s immortal castle. So, they become mortal and eventually die. But, before they die, they have a daughter who, her name, I cannot remember, but she’s in Hogfather and a number of the other Discworld books.
Chris: We never know how he had a daughter in the first place.[Laughter]
Oren: it’s been so long since I’ve read Mort. I do not remember. The granddaughter is named Susan. Thanks, Google. And Death’s daughter is either Isabelle, or Isabelle spelled with a y. Apparently, she’s adopted. So, presumably he adopted her from somewhere, but I would have to go wiki diving to find out more.
Chris: Susan has such a unique look. It makes you think that somehow, Death begat a kid.
Oren: Yeah. Discworld is very heavily on the idea that you can kind of absorb traits by being around something for a while. So, the idea is that like Mort and Isabelle kind of absorbed Deathlike traits. And then passed those on to Susan. And Susan is, I’d say a decent character in Discworld.
Like overall, I didn’t really think they did her justice in the Hogfather movie. I know everyone loves that movie, but like Susan kind of spends it, trying to figure out what the plot is. And then her main job in the story is to give the bad guy the sword he needs to kill Death, because he just grabs it from her, which I felt Susan deserved better. And for once I wasn’t talking about Narnia, ba dum tss.[Laughter]
Chris: So, I think most of the time when people are depicting Death, they need to do two things. One, make Death unique, because as we said, a standard Grim Reaper is pretty old and boring, but also still make it feel like Death, which if you spin the story with the character actually collecting souls, I don’t think that’s gonna be a big problem.
So, actually doing it, but if you have something like Joe Black, before we have a very sexy Brad Pit who is not actively working his job as Death, then you have to work in the fact that he’s Death until the dialogue and the way he behaves and other things like that. So, there can be like a balance of how you unique you make a character before they’re just not associated with a concept that you want them to be associated with, because if you make a super light, peppy, attractive Death, but then they don’t seem like Death. You’re not getting the benefit of that contrast.
Oren: It’s like, how Death are they at this point? Remember the same, but different.
Oren: And that does raise a question. If Death is your protagonist, what are they doing? What is the story about? One of the problems that I had with Dead Like Me is that it felt like they weren’t really using the premise that the protagonist was a Grim Reaper for that much. Most of the drama was about the fact that she wanted to go back to her family, but couldn’t, because she’s not supposed to break the masquerade, and also looks different now.
And I was like, okay, that could be interesting, but I would like a little bit more about the fact that she’s a Grim Reaper now. I feel like if all we wanted was a story about someone separated from their family, we didn’t need to make them a Grim Reaper to get that to happen.
Chris: Yeah. That’s a very interesting premise, and so you kind of expect to actually make use of it during the story. I do think in order to make that a conflict, what obstacle is there in the way of Death doing their job? So, if you have a character who is Death, how do you create conflict there? I suppose you could have a character that starts out being a little squeamish and has to learn the ropes. That’s only gonna last so long.
Oren: The default method, if there is such a thing, if you’re having a character who is Death, but is not like the Sandman or Discworld version of Death, someone who has just been recently recruited as a Grim Reaper, what you would do is you would make collecting souls an important thing.
If souls don’t get collected, something bad happens like in Dead Like Me. If a soul doesn’t get collected, they just kind of wander around as an unhappy ghost. And so that’s bad. You wanna stop that from happening, and then you make collecting souls hard somehow. You give that a conflict. You make that a problem. And there’s your basic Grim Reaper plot.
Wes: You brought up Thanatos earlier, and in The Myth of Sisyphus, the whole point of that is like, Sisyphus is supposed to die, but he pulls one over on Thanatos and basically locks him up and then like escapes, death, and then Aries gets pissed off because no one can die, so no one can get glory on the battlefield. So, they find out what happened to Thanatos and they’re like, you got locked up by this human.
And so they go and they throw him to death, but then he persuades Persephone that he didn’t get a real funeral. So, she lets him out, you know, it’s just a whole thing until he gets slammed down there, but I’m like, okay, there’s parts of the story. If your main character is Death, you’re the protagonist, you are prevented from doing your job and chaos is happening. And plus, somebody could pull one over on you by playing War. So, there we go.[Laughter]
Oren: Yeah, that could be interesting. That myth, and myths like it, I think, do present a problem when people copy them too literally, because, hot take, myths from thousands of years ago aren’t always great stories.[Laughter]
Wes: What?! No.
Oren: Whatt?! But what happens is people do that and what they have is this thing of like, well, Death can’t do their job. So, a bunch of people are alive who would’ve died and it’s like, I would just recommend avoiding that premise because that means that for Death, even if you add some other bad consequence, it’s like, well, maybe Death should just stop doing his job, so people could be alive. Death is bad. I would prefer people not die.
So, it’s a weird thing. I don’t think people think through the implications of it when they sometimes try to recreate it in their stories.
Wes: Unless they’re just like, oh, well, Death is around, so everybody’s like horribly mangled and they’re not given sweet release. Ugh! The implications are grotesque.[Laughter]
Chris: That’s a little unpleasant.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, there are things you can do, right. There are ways that you can show that, without Death doing their job, that bad things are happening.
Chris: I suppose you could have a villain. Who’s just a really bad dude, and was supposed to die. but managed to capture Death. I suppose, if you create a big jerk and make it all about that big jerk and how that big jerk needs to die, it’s not much worse than a revenge tale, right? You could get away with it.
Oren: I have seen concepts like that, of like Death as some kind of supernatural assassin. And it’s like, all right. I guess the question I would ask is why does anyone else die? Why does Tiffany the orphan need to die in a world where Death exists primarily to hunt down like Mr. Badman, the Murderman.
Wes: Yeah, but then again, if Death is more of like the escort character, then that makes more sense. If Death isn’t here to escort people, the natural processes maybe still happen, but then I don’t know, their souls are hanging out somewhere. And is limbo getting overpopulated?
Chris: Or there’s hauntings everywhere, because Death is not escorting souls. The afterlife anymore.
Wes: Yes. Ooh, that’s good. I like that.
Oren: That is literally the premise of Dead Like Me, and seems like it should have provided plenty of material for cool plots. And yet somehow, hmm, the premise can’t do all the work.
Chris: I do think in many situations like that, you would need to introduce lots of powerful, magical antagonists, like the Auditors, because otherwise again, gonna be hard to give a character that’s Death enough conflict over doing something that would normally be routine.
Oren: That could apply to any story, right? If your character’s just doing their daily job, something’s gonna have to be different. Otherwise, if they normally do this job, what’s gonna stop them from just doing it now. But I do think that a lot of people would prefer the Sandmanor Discworldtype Death as just a cool foil or NPC that your protagonist can talk to.
I think people are a fan of that. So, I think that’s also a thing. Just be aware that they probably won’t make the greatest protagonist, unless you’re gonna do like a cosmic level story.
Wes: Well, and that kind of fits in too, because there’s a lot we don’t know about death, and it’s kind of nice to let the character keep a lot of the mystery about them.
Oren: The whole concept of not knowing what happens when someone dies is surprisingly important, because once you start telling people what the answer to that is, it starts to mess with your perception of what death even is.
Wes: Yeah. I like how The Good Placedealt with that. It’s like, you’re alive and then you die, but you’re also alive. And then I guess we’ll solve this problem by letting you die, again?[Laughter]
Oren: That was what they decided to do. Although The Good Place, as with many situations, is unusual in that, first of all, in the good place, there are things worse than death, like going to the bad place. That’s established to be the main stakes there, but it also still shows even in the good place. There are ways that you can die and then they don’t know what happens after that. Like they mention, I think they call it being decommissioned, which is how you killed demons. And like, Michael –
Wes: I think he’s retired.
Oren: Yeah. He talks about how that would basically be killing him. And we don’t know what would happen to him at that point. Is there a demon afterlife? Who knows? It’s afterlifes all the way down, baby.
Wes: That’s right [Laughter]. Death as narrator? The Book Thief is probably the most notable example of that. I think that’s achieved well because Death as an observer has some novelty to it. As an observer who doesn’t quite get humans, which kind of picks up on that Joe Black thing that Chris, you mentioned that great quote from that book is like Death is haunted by humans, because we make dumb and weird and horrible choices. A lot of novelty there for like an entity that’s around us the entire time, but just doesn’t quite understand humans. Makes for a compelling narrator.
Oren: Yeah, you have the outsider appeal. It also solves one of the core issues with the first person omniscient narration style, and that it’s much easier to believe that Death knows all these things. It’s a pretty noticeable choice. So, if you’re gonna do that, I would say, make sure that you are getting your money’s worth out of it. It’s not a choice you make, just because you like the concept of doing a first-person narration with the I pronoun [Laughter]. You need to get more out of it than that. Otherwise it’s gonna feel distracting.
Chris: I do think that Death is particularly convenient as an omniscient first person narrator, because Death can easily be all knowing, but we also have an explanation for why Death never intervenes. Why Death isn’t like super powerful, because Death has a very specific role to play. Because otherwise, that’s the big problem is if you have what essentially feels like a character in the story, that’s all knowing that can too easily ruin your plot. If it’s somebody who could come in and intervene. So, we have a reason he stays out of it and a reason he knows everything. Or they.
Oren: This is true. Yeah. Death is often portrayed as masculine, but does not have to be. Sandman being the obvious example. But anyway, we are about at the end of our time. And fortunately, you two have defeated me in a game of podcasting, so you get to live another day.
Oren: But this podcast is going to be carried off to the great recording studio beyond.
Chris: If you enjoyed this podcast, become a supporter on Patreon. You can go to patreon.com/mythcreants or mythcreants.com/support.
Oren: And before we go, I want to thank a few of our existing patrons who keep this podcast alive. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber, he is a urban fantasy writer and connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo, she lives at therambogeeks.com.
We’ll talk to you next week.[Closing theme]
Chris: This has been the Mythcreant podcast. Opening and closing theme, “The Princess Who Saved Herself” by Jonathan Colton.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?