Doing the washing up, I put on Blind Guardian’s Nightfall in Middle-Earth, music for the Silmarillion. Contemplating just how hard to kill Middle-Earth’s elves are led me in turn to a question I keep facing in each new setting: what their deaths mean. What do other characters in any given world perceive? A tragedy, or merely a transition, or almost nothing at all? The wrong reaction can be jarring, if you think about it too much, and can make you wonder if the central conceit of a book isn’t, in fact, slightly mischaracterised after all…
Here, then, are some categories of death, going from the least horrible to the most… more or less. You might have your own order for a couple of them.
Immortality by Regeneration
Death is painful, but it just leads to a brief coma-like oblivion before you wake up again. Really, the most you lose is time: in cases of extreme pain, it might be easier just to die and wake up recovered. Life is cheap; life is eternal. Your friends won’t mourn you, because they know you’ll be back shortly: the most they’ll feel is sorry for you for having to suffer. Similarly, you feel much the same about them when they die. Mourning them when they die would be about as nonsensical as mourning them when they sleep. I don’t have many fully regeneratively-immortal characters; in fact, outside of the Void, I’m not sure I have any.
Immortality by Reincarnation
You retain at least some memories from life to life, which enables you to still be something resembling the same person, learning from experience each time around. This death is costly, but still only fairly minor. You lose a good 15-20 years growing up all over again, but in the end, you can build on the life that came before and continue working towards the same goals – or against them, if you’ve changed your mind. You mourn your friends when they die, for how long it’ll be until you meet them again and how uncertain the circumstances of that meeting will be, but you look forward to meeting them again and likely even use mnemonic phrases to identify them when you’re once more reunited. In some areas of some settings, I have reincarnatively immortal characters, and I always have to remind myself that they know no parting need be permanent.
Immortality by Known Eternal Afterlife
Your world provides an afterlife! Lucky you! This slightly unlikely concept provides for an eternity of life after the brief one you’re wandering around in now. Since you have at least semi-regular contact with it (hence “known”), you’re well aware that this is where you and your fellows will be headed. If it has entry conditions, you’re up on those and fully intend to surpass them. The only deaths you really mourn are those who haven’t met the entry conditions – what even happens to those people? I have some characters like this, although it isn’t actually specified that their afterlife is really eternal.
Immortality by Unknown Eternal Afterlife
Are you sure? I mean, really, really sure? Can anyone ever be really, really sure of something like this? You’ve never heard anyone talk from beyond the grave, but people insist there’s something out there. At the least, it’s a comforting story, but you still cry when you lose your friends, fearing you will never see them again: that all they were is lost forever. I have some characters in this bracket, too: the believers, those with faith but no knowledge. Given that this is a pretty standard state of our own humanity, it’s not hard to write.
Death Is Absolute
There’s no second chances, no coming back. Only oblivion, final and terrible. A horrifying concept even to contemplate, every time someone dies another beautiful and unique spark in the universe is snuffed out forever, never to be relighted. I have a lot of characters in this bracket (with the exception of the Void, which provides a setting-external eternal afterlife for all with any number of really complicated twists and turns, but they don’t know about it and it doesn’t count, not least because in that context it’s only my own comfort blanket and I’m well aware of that). All the pure sci-fi characters and a fair few of the fantasy ones are, ultimately, in this position.