In today’s edition of Things You Recognise But Don’t Know The Names Of, a totally legit and not-at-all-made-up series, we’ll be talking about the PSYCHOPOMP! What thing that you recognise is it?
No, it’s not the Psycho Pump, an item in point and click adventure games to fix the Psycho Plumbing.
No, it’s not the Psycho Pope, the main antagonist in a poorly written Young Adult novel with hamfisted anti-religion themes.
No, it’s not the Psycho Crusher, the signature torpedo move of Master Bison, overlord of Shadaloo.
The PSYCHOPOMP is in fact…DEATH! Well, kinda.
More specifically, a psychopomp is the term for the mythological ferrier of souls, the figure that brings the departed to their final resting place and makes the transition from the mortal world to the afterlife. Not necessarily Death itself, possibly an employee of death, much like Charon in Greek mythology. After all, the fundamental function is transport. However, for the most part, that’s wrapped up in one package, as in the case of the Grim Reaper.
So what’s the deal with Death/psychopomps/concepts personified? Well, the usual way they’re used is as these mythical, larger than life figures in the world of the story. If these metaphors actually show up (as in, actually manifest as Death The Character, not just a story where people die), it’s often in more supporting, behind-the-scenes roles, similar to mentors, gods, authority figures, or even cosmic mythical figures. Maybe even final bosses. And that’s easy enough to do, of course. Just like the Angels of Diablo embody virtues, with Tyrael being JUSTICE ITSELF, this is the most common way concepts are used, treated as godlike beings. It’s a very easy instinct for writers to follow, especially when dealing with fundamental concepts and archetypes in our collective mindset. Death is actually a good litmus test for how concepts are depicted because of not just its universality but its diversity; it can be actively EEEEVIIIIIIL, or entirely neutral, only focused on doing its job.
This is also because most stories are told from a mortal perspective in order to make them more relatable. And if that’s the case, either the power level is so grounded that the concepts never make an appearance (unless you’re telling a C’thulhu story where cops and private eyes are face to face with the Embodiment of Entropy), or the concepts appear in the aforementioned distant, all-powerful ways that can’t relate to the characters. And this is for two practical reasons: Firstly, so you can focus on the mortals, and secondly, because getting them involved tends to trivialise the situation. After all, why bother struggling when Death The Party Member can kill every enemy instantly?
So that’s certainly a crash course on the usual ways you can use Conceptual Avatars like Death in conventional ways, as well as an idea on why it’s hard to use godlike figures in stories about mortals. Definitely nothing wrong with that, provided you make it good. But what about something overlooked yet amazing: Humanising these avatars?
Now, this is something pretty uncommon to do. You can’t really make a big concept like Death and other close relations a Core Cast Member having adventures and prominent screentime all day, because Core Cast Members tend to be fallible for the purpose of the genre. And to achieve THAT with something recognised as such a big concept, you usually need a circumstance which places it under control so that it can function as part of the cast. Maybe even depowered to put them on even footing. Even then, however, it’s not really humanising them so much as it is leaving them the same except without powers.
It is, however, possible to humanise these concepts without watering down their power or importance to the cosmology of your story’s world, as seen in our friend Deadpool up there. You can either do it within the mortal realm or outside of it.
To humanise your concept of choice among mortals, you usually need a bunch of characters they can interact with. Unless that’s the entire selling point of your series (Me And My Crazy Roommate: WAR! From the guys who brought you The Big Bang Theory!), this relationship will seldom be front and centre. It can, however, be a nice side relationship, making these figures somehow extremely alien to us yet extremely relatable. Is it something that is unknown to most of the world except the few that know it personally (“Actually, Justice isn’t some big fiery angel, he’s more like the quiet guy at work, surprisingly reasonable chap.”)? Or is it one of many cosmic concepts everyone recognises and tracks, to the point that it routinely meets up and crosses over with other characters (“Oh, good afternoon, Miss Grey. Shall I set up your room for you, or are you just passing by? By the way, tell Mr. Von Doom I have an appointment with him next month. First I have to see Galactus about the last world he ate.”)?
The second one, while perhaps less accessible to common folk, also frees you to stretch your creative muscles. By writing a story that goes beyond the mortal realm, yet treating them the way you would mortal protagonists, essentially leaves you with a more malleable plot and setting in which to define these concepts. On their own home turf, are you showing what they’re like behind the scenes, embodying the ideas that they represent? Is this a story about the mechanics of what they do, or who they are as the very embodiment of these concepts?
Now, these may seem like very different methods. One relates them to mortals, one takes them outside of that setting. However, they both share a fundamental technique:
Think of the concept you’re depicting. Think of how it relates to the world you’re building. Then treat it like a character, with thoughts and emotions. It’s now no longer a vague concept operating like a machine, but someone with a job or a calling, able to see what they’re doing and what it costs. Do they perceive it the way we would, or will you create an entirely different way of viewing things?
And that about covers the art of writing Concepts as Characters. They can be not so different from you and me, or they could represent an intriguing creative challenge, and neither one should be seen as inherently superior to the other. Successfully portraying Death as a buddy roommate is as challenging as writing an eternal, dutiful reaper. Do you write it within what they’re meant to do? Or do you take them outside of their role?
But of course, one thing you can’t get around is that, as walking, talking embodiments of ideas, they are also walking, talking metaphors and messages. What you make them do, what you do to them, all of it will inevitably be a statement from you, the writer, about them as a concept and what they mean in the world you are creating.
Yes, even in utterly satirical works. Because hey, wouldn’t that mean that someone, in-universe or out, think that means Death is a joke, or a joker?