"THERE'S NO JUSTICE. THERE'S JUST ME."
In Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, anthropomorphic personifications have at some point started to take on a life (or, in DEATH's case, an existence) of their own. And thus creatures such as the Hogfather (scary version of Santa), the Hair-Loss Fairy, and, naturally, DEATH have come into being as soon as there was people who imagined them into existence. Although there always was people dying, DEATH did not exist before people started to attribute traits to him. Actually, he's almost the oldest creature in the universe (obviously something had to die first...).
In fact, Death looks just like humans would think he would: Death is a seven-foot tall skeleton of polished bone with pinpoints of blue fire in his eye sockets. He wears a long black robe (in fact, black is his favorite color) which appears as if it has been woven from darkness itself (and probably has), carries a scythe, and usually appears just around the time of a person's death to sever the line that connects the body and the soul in order to send them on to whatever afterlife they believed in when alive. He is seen only by cats, professional practitioners of magic, and those who are about to die or are already dead. Where ever someone dies, he is already waiting, usually even taking the time for a quick chat (he prides himself on his personal service). His voice carries authority; in fact he speaks in capitals only, and he doesn't make bargains with his "clients." Well, not usually.
"When it's time to stop living, I will certainly make Death my number one choice!"
-- Rincewind in Terry Pratchett's The Last Continent
However, he is not the ruthless destroyer of legend, but rather a timeserver who has all Eternity to serve. He also "long gave up using the traditional skeletal horses, because of the bother of having to stop all the time to wire bits back on," so he now rides a real, living white steed named Binky. As one of the horsemen of the apocalypse, he is expected to ride out at the end of the world:
"It's going to look pretty good, then, isn't it," said War testily, "the One Horseman and Three Pedestrians of the Apocalypse."
-- The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse encounter unexpected difficulties in Terry Pratchett's Sourcery
He tries very hard to understand mortals, but this effort is largely negated by his utter lack of anything even remotely resembling a sense of incongruity or a sense of humour. He does care for them, and in Reaper Man he defended them to Azrael against the soullessness of bureaucracy and also works against and finally fights the order-loving Auditors.
Despite rumour, he is not cruel. He is just terribly, terribly good at his job.
At one point (in Mort) he decides to become more human by living the life, finding a job and experiencing human existence in general, which doesn't really work, and simply confuses him further. He also quits his job (in Reaper Man), takes up farming and cooking, adopts a daughter, takes on an apprentice, becomes a grandfather (of Susan), stars in a movie, replaces the Hogfather for a short time, etc...
I USHERED SOULS INTO THE NEXT WORLD. I WAS THE GRAVE OF ALL HOPE. I WAS THE ULTIMATE REALITY.
I WAS THE ASSASSIN AGAINST WHOM NO LOCK WOULD HOLD.
"Yes, point taken, but do you have any particular skills?"
-- Death consulting a job broker in Mort
He lives in a residence, outside normal space and time, which he has attempted (with variable success) to model on a human house. Of course, it is bigger on the inside than on the outside, the arched doorways are decorated with skull-and-bone motifs, and everything is black, including every plant in the garden. This house contains, among other things, a large room filled with shelf upon shelf of hourglasses. One hourglass for every living thing on Discworld. When the sand in an hourglass runs out, that particular individual will receive a visit from The Anthromorphic Personification Himself.
Galder: I said I hope it is a good party.
AT THE MOMENT IT IS. I THINK IT MIGHT GO DOWNHILL VERY QUICKLY AT MIDNIGHT. Galder: Why?
THAT'S WHEN THEY THINK I'LL BE TAKING MY MASK OFF.
Death can be summoned by the Rite of AshkEnte, which requires either:
- a) eight eighth-level wizards, a ceremonial octogram, rams' skulls, and dribbly candles
- b) three small bits of wood and 2cc of mouse blood, or
- c) two small bits of wood and a fresh egg.
I HOPE WE ARE NOT GOING TO HAVE ANY OF THIS 'FOUL FIEND' BUSINESS AGAIN.
-- Death gets summoned by the college council in Terry Pratchett's Eric
In my view, DEATH is one of Pratchett's funniest characters, the ultimate fact of life struggling with his own identity, watching the world of humans (and Dwarves, Trolls, Vampires, four Elephants on the back of a giant turtle) with great interest, but ultimately not understanding it, no matter how much he tries to. He is used for interflection of the human nature, but also for comic relief. Death appears in every Discworld novel (and game: he even stars in the second one), and most some other books by Pratchett as well, such as in the wonderful Good Omens:
"You're Hells Angels, then? What chapter are you from?"
REVELATIONS, CHAPTER SIX.
-- Death in conversation with a biker in Terry Pratchett's & Neil Gaiman's Good Omens
Please excuse my lavish use of fair use quotes, but they help to illustrate the character better than my words ever could. Go buy the books, all of them!