How to Kill Your Main Character

ExecutionerThis article is by Rhiannon Paille.

Catching Fire, the edgy, emotional, and jarring sequel to Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games trilogy pushed the boundaries, pitting teens against teens in a battle royale to the death, winner takes all. In light of the popular Suzanne Collin’s books, everyone is looking for a way to up the ante and do the unthinkable.

What’s more unthinkable than killing your main character?

As a young adult fantasy author who killed my main character in The Ferryman + The Flame series, I thought I’d give you some insight into the epic thought process that lead to the untimely death of Kaliel, The Amethyst Flame.

May the odds be ever in your favor.

1. Make sure it’s the only choice the character has left

Uselessly killing your main character isn’t going to help your story, even if you’re trying to be the edgy writer that doesn’t do what everyone else does. There’s a reason why very few authors kill their main characters—it’s hard and sometimes impossible to do. Don’t do it just to do it. If it’s a central part of the story, or helps the character escape a worse fate, then go for it, but make sure everything that happens to the character leads to their ultimate demise.

2. Make sure you have more than one main character

I can’t stress this enough. Giving two characters equal stage time as main characters will help to soften the blow if you kill one of them.

3. Choose your tense and POV wisely

If you are telling the story in first person and one of those main characters dies, you’ll need other characters to pick up the pieces. There’s nothing wrong with writing in third person limited specifically so your secondary character can shine.

4. Make sure it has the appropriate emotional impact on the surrounding characters

This is a main character after all, not the twelfth dwarf that got stabbed during the battle against the orcs. Readers have become attached to the main character which means they are 150% more invested in what happens to the main character than they are to surrounding characters. That means your surrounding characters need to have a significant emotional reaction to that death. Unlike the twelfth dwarf who was stabbed during the battle, all the readers are going to mourn the loss of the main character. Make sure your surrounding characters take a moment to stop, process, and grieve for the main character before you move the plot forward.

5. Make sure it’s not the last book in the series

Your readers need hope. They’re all prepared to go over that cliff and follow your characters down the sordid tale pre-death and post-death, but they will attack you with the heat of a thousand flaming arrows if it’s the last book. False hope is better than no hope, and is much better than a middle finger to the reader if the book ends two chapters after the death scene and there’s not much of a fallout or a justification.

6. Make sure your surrounding characters remember the main character who is dead

This is why you don’t want it to be the last book. The impact is so great that you need to take the time for your surrounding characters to have flashbacks of their time with the main character. Fiction is great because you’ll still be able to write about the deceased main character through the eyes of the other characters. Paying tribute to the deceased main character even when the main character is dead, and allowing other characters to relive moments when the main character was alive gives your readers more of that hope we spoke of above.

7. Make sure there’s a message within the plot that coincides with the death of the main character

In The Ferryman + The Flame series the message is sacrifice and strife. The main characters know that there are no happy endings and are therefore prepared for their fate. At the same time it shows that sometimes destiny is greater than love, and that you cannot run from your destiny even if that destiny essentially destroys you. Similarly, you need to have a well developed arc from beginning of series to end of series that incorporates this main character death so that your readers walk away satisfied.

8. Always remember the art of rebirth

Fantasy realms are awesome because of the infusion of magic into everyday lives, and the very real possibility that characters can come back in other forms. You may kill a main character only to bring her back as a Raven or a ghost, and therefore while the initial death will always impact, the compromise will make readers feel better about the journey through the rest of your book.

9. If you’re unsure if it’ll work, don’t do it

If your mind keeps drifting to alternatives, and there’s a reasonable amount of strength behind keeping the character alive, keep her alive. There are other ways to “kill” characters, such as allowing them to lose everything, or putting them in comas, or having them walk away from the situations they’re in. Physical death doesn’t always have to happen, but intellectual and emotional deaths can occur.

10. Be insensitive, insincere, unapologetic, and lewd to the fans who hate you for it

Just kidding! Make sure to explain your reasons for killing the character. Even if you follow the guidelines above, you’ll still have readers who will tell you they hated your decision to kill the main character. Placate these people by explaining your reasons, and promising that when the series is finished there will be an HEA (Happily Ever After). It doesn’t need to be a perfect HEA, but it still needs to happen at some point.

If you’re still unsure about this very important decision, here’s a handy flow chart to help you out:

Click to Embiggen
Click to Embiggen

Have you ever had to kill a character — any character? How did you do it and why?

About the Author:

Rhiannon is a booksmith, karaoke singer, telepath, plant killer,and nerd from the frozen land of Canada. When she’s not killing her main characters, you can find her sipping iced cappuccino despite her allergy to coffee at yafantasyauthor.com. Her young adult fantasy novel, SURRENDER (The Ferryman + The Flame #1) is available on amazon.

This article was contributed by a featured author whose details are mentioned above. Are you interested in writing for Mythic Scribes? If so, please check out our submission guidelines.

26 Responses to How to Kill Your Main Character

  1. I read a Young Adult novel that killed its MC. And it was the final book of the trilogy. Although, this book did it so well. (I wont mention the title for spoilers.)

    The MC lived in a world where he was almost guaranteed to grow up into a horrible person. The trilogy follows him through this transformation from innocence to badness to redemption.

    It also helps that books 2 and three developed a secondary MC to get through the resolving action.

  2. I think 10 is wrong. Do not be unapologetic? So you have to apologise to your readers for a character dying?
    8? I think, magically bringing back characters from the dead not only is a weak trick  but, if characters can just be brought back to life again then what fear is there in death anyway?
    “…for your surrounding characters to have flashbacks of their time with the main character.” How often, in your day-to-day life do you have actual flashbacks? None but the most harrowing experiences which engrain themselves into one’s mind could cause any such flashbacks without onset dementia. They make me put down a book.

    If you are gonna kill a main character remember, it is a person, people die all the time. If there is nothing about them that makes them death-proof then they are just as likely to die as any other character in your story. If there IS something which makes them death-proof, you’ve just taken all suspense out of your story. Also, I’d say, do not try and ‘soften the blow’. What for? Death hits people hard, it’s painful, depressing and it hurts – if you simply cannot write death properly, do not write about it at all.

  3. I think #4 and #5 are key. Not only do characters (and the reader) need time to grieve, but it cannot be left for the next book in the series. As an avid reader, I’m getting tired of series authors who leave so much unfinished. For me, the Harry Potter series worked because (with the exception of the last two books), each book had a plot line that had closure (even though the bigger plot continued on). When an author fails to give me at least a bit of closure (i.e. I turn the page and am surprised to have it end there), I feel manipulated and sometimes will refuse to read the next book in the series (no matter how good the first was). Add a poorly conceived killing off of the main character, and you’ll kill your chances with this reader.

  4. Some very good stuff here.  I do pretty much everything from 1st Person, so my protagonist is generally safe… but I do on occasion send lovable, witty and fun important characters to that farm in the country where they can run and play with other characters…

    I’d add “Don’t do it in a way that the reader realizes that you did it simply to be avant garde, edgy, or ‘profound.’” Otherwise, it’s just an overly intellectualized version of killing the puppy just to prove the villain’s a villainous vilain.

    I don’t get all Hatey McHateswell when a beloved MC gets perished if it’s done right.  John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” there was really no realistic way to end that movie… But a few years ago I read a zombiepocalypse book with a delightful protagonist who in self defense kills a rapist.  Rapist’s brother hunts her through the book, then kills her.  Last chapter or two is rapist’s brother having feelings about how he respected and admired her but just had to kill her because paedo rapist or not, family’s family.  Guess what author will never darken my shelves again? 

    Some folks gushed breathlessly about how it was brave and artistical and profound, because “the story was really about the paedo rapist’s brother, not the girl on the blurb who carried the vast majority of the tale…” 

    That’s another thing that irritated me.  It’s a bait & switch when you tell readers your books about “Hero X,” then kill Hero X… they like as not bought it to read about said hero, not the character who takes over the story after they snuffit.  

    I suppose that’s another bit to add… “If you’re going to kill the main character, wait til the end, or, if you kill them early, be honest in the blurb that this book is about whoever picks up the pieces.

  5. Also, along with the Dr. Horrible reference in the Flow Chart, there’s an Alice in Wonderland AND Shakespeare reference in there. I have an ebook card set for the first person to tell me which line in the flow chart is from Shakespeare and which play that line is from. Hint: it’s only part of the line from the play, the character goes on to day “for I have done.”

  6. Thank you guys so much for commenting and reading my article! I’m glad you’ve all had a chance to ponder, and geek out over the flow chart, and also, DR. HORRIBLE RULES!

  7. Oh that’s going to be hard! I have one character who is a supporting character, and at the end of my third book there’s this “everyone is dead now” kind of scene . . . so my readers will think I basically killed everyone, and one of those characters is the beloved best friend. I’m pretty much waiting for the guillotine on that one. LOL I didn’t even include that scenario in here but um if you can avoid it, don’t kill ALL your characters off at once. (I did and everyone who has read that book has screamed at me when they finished it. Except my mom who was like, “Yeah it was right though, for the book.” and I was like, “what?”)

  8. Gosh I LOVE Joss Whedon! And yeah I’m really not a fan of danger that isn’t dangerous in books. I mean there’s a reason there’s a risk for the characters, otherwise there would be no story.

  9. Gosh I LOVE Joss Whedon! And yeah I’m really not a fan of danger that isn’t dangerous in books. I mean there’s a reason there’s a risk for the characters, otherwise there would be no story.

  10. Antonio del Drago A E Lowan lol, I love snappy flow charts, it was always my dream in life to just make snappy flow charts for people. My favourite lately is “are you wearing pants?” seriously, google it, it’s hilarious.

  11. Mike Cairns Thank you! I quite enjoy penguins I think they have epic stories to tell what with all of that falling in love only once and having to live in the coldest place on Earth thing. Penguins are where it’s at! Plus, it would be really cool to just have a penguin appear randomly, much better than Jacob taking over in Breaking Dawn, that was just creepy.

  12. @Diane Tibert lol well yes there is always that delicate balance, which is why I suggested having two main characters, but of course if it doesn’t work it just doesn’t work and you shouldn’t do it! Do what’s right for your story mate!

  13. ericjehlers lol thank you for this, and exactly. I referenced another book which recently did this, killed the main character a few chapters before the end of the trilogy (*cough* ALLGEIANT) and that lead to basically a public flogging. It was truly awful.

  14. In one book, I killed off an MC, but she doesn’t technically die. She just comes back as something else and everyone who knew her knows this. It still has an impact, but it does soften the blow.

  15. This post contains a video game spoiler, so read at your own peril (ME3 is a couple years old, so hopefully not a big problem)

    Just want to add a warning. I think a lot of the points above are helpful in preventing this but remember, the main (and only playable) character dying at the end of Mass Effect 3 is a gigantic part of the poor reaction people had to the game. It was the worst way to end the story line of the game series. The way you die, and the reasons why, had little to do with the story and game play for the rest of the series, and there was no choice involved. IF you choose to kill your main character PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE make sure it would be consistent with the story you’re telling, in tone, theme, and character personality/actions. And make sure it has a reason. Unless the point of your story is that there is no reason. Then, I guess, do whatever.

  16. In book one of my first fantasy series I killed off a key character, but after I finished the first draft, I revised the scene. This gave me the opportunity to bring him back if I wanted to. I didn’t realise until the book was done that he was an intricate part of the plot.

    Kill off the main character of that story? Not possible. In fact, I really dislike the ending of a book if the main character dies. It’s like I’ve read it for nothing, just to see my favourite character bite the dust. I feel cheated. Now if I disliked the main character, their death would be a satisfying ending.

  17. I killed my first main character in my second book, and it was rough.  When I got to the point where I realized that she had to die I stopped writing for almost a month because I didn’t want to write that scene. 

    I did get through it, and I think it’s what needed to happen.  It’s interesting that you mention characters coming back, because I write an urban fantasy/sci fi blend, and it was important to me that this character–who was fully human–couldn’t be brought back, and so I make a point of having the other characters discuss that. 

    Some time later (after the book was published) someone pointed out to me that mentors often have to die in quest stories, and this character was something of a mentor to my narrator, but I wasn’t thinking that at the time.

  18. Hi Rhiannon.
    Penguins… Every fantasy book would bettered with the addition of penguins as the narrators. :)
    Good post, cheers. I think point 6 is key. The death of a main character has to be a catalyst that changes the others, and drives them forward, perhaps giving more meaning to their own struggle. Nothing worse than getting two chapters along and they’re all like, ‘who?’
    cheers
    Mike

  19. I love writing death scenes. A bit like Joss Whedon in that way. I generally do it for a story reason, but occasionally that reason is simply that people die, or to emphasize the level of danger the characters are in.

  20. I am contemplating this for a character who is not the main in a larger story but will be in her own story. Otherwise I am killing a character’s mother that everyone likes when given a peek of her.

  21. I killed off a central character in the novel that I’m currently revising. I did this to give the story emotional weight. Having a key character lose his life showed how high the stakes have risen, and the personal cost involved.

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