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Killing off Main Characters

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by valiant12, Sep 30, 2015.

  1. valiant12

    valiant12 Sage

    How do you feel about killing off one of your important characters?
    I personally prefer my characters alive, that being said I'm totally ok with book in which most people die .
  2. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    In writing terms, I'm a mass murderer.

    As long as the death serves a relevant purpose, I've no issues as reader or writer. Death is as much a part of life (if not more so) than other aspects.
  3. Zara

    Zara Dreamer

    In one of my fantasy books there was 'killing' which separated my character's soul from their body and they don't die just go onto a different plane of consciousness. Their life didn't end there is went on. Either rebirth, or in spirit.
    Then I had 'killing' which was destroying a person's soul thus ending their existence completely. No rebirth, no afterlife just total extinction.

    I killed off my main character and went with her on a journey through the afterlife in my next book. She died in battle and has to sit back and watch her family fight a battle. She can't fight for them so she has to figure out new ways to help them as they can't even see or hear her. That could be a sub-plot if you want to kill a character but keep them around. But I also feel what's the point of killing them only to keep them around. You just have to weigh up the pros and cons and does it help move the plot along, does it develop your other characters?
    valiant12 likes this.
  4. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Inkling

    Whacking off a main character or two is not a bad idea, especially in a epic work of fiction where there are several main characters. However they have to be careful with the ones they knock off. For example, kill off a really bad villain and it could kill the story because the protagonists no longer have an opponent that brings out the best and worst they can offer. Batman without the Joker, Superman without Lex Luther, Spiderman without Norman Osborn... they just wouldn't be the same characters without a decent villain to challenge them.
  5. Peat

    Peat Sage

    As long as

    a) The character's arc leading to death makes sense and entertains
    b) The story afterwards is interesting

    Then authors should kill as they will.

    But in my experience, those can be tricky obstacles. My interest in SoIaF is wavering because too many interesting characters are dead (and too many dull-ish ones aren't) and because some deaths were set up in a very tedious way. Avengers Infinity War had some raw sewage running through it of this nature.

    I'd also add that the whole main cast can survive intact and I have no issues with that.
  6. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Inkling

    On the whole killing off a main character is a bad idea because people often read a fantasy epic or series because they emotionally connect with those characters. Kill the wrong ones and the readers stop reading the books. I suspect this is what will happen with A Song of Ice and Fire. However, that doesn't mean it's always a bad idea to do it. The important thing is that the writer needs a character to replace them who are just as engaging or more so than the main character who is killed off.
    TheCrystallineEntity likes this.
  7. I'm the same. Out of my first series, seven books in total, the main cast of Book II, III, and IV end up dead, while the main casts of V, VI, and VII survive [though some characters in V are already dead. Reincarnation and the concept that there is no death, only life, is important in all of the books, so many characters come back through different lifetimes.

    In my next series, out of five planned books, only two characters die: the main character of Book III, [Book IV is about the consequences of her death and the rest of the main characters struggling to cope], and a major character in Book V whose death at the climax of the first part of the book leads into the second part of the book, wherein the heroes journey into the underworld to find him.

    <For example, kill off a really bad villain and it could kill the story because the protagonists no longer have an opponent that brings out the best and worst they can offer. Batman without the Joker, Superman without Lex Luther, Spiderman without Norman Osborn... they just wouldn't be the same characters without a decent villain to challenge them.>

    I've sidestepped that challenge in that while in Book V of my new series, the villain does die at the end of part 1, the heroes encounter him in the underworld. In part 3, they work on repairing the damage he did to their world, and grappling with the possibility that the main character isn't some sort of 'chosen one' and is just one of many clones of a generic hero from the past.
  8. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    I don't like to kill off main characters, except maybe at the end. To me it feels like I'm telling the character's story, and it doesn't make sense to me and the way I envision my stories for the story to conclude without them.

    Lots of non-main-characters die in my writing, though. It helps to keep the stakes high.
  9. My characters tend to die at the end of the stories, but not always.
  10. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

    Main Character dying and returning is kind of a staple of the heroes journey. Its kind of like shedding the old self to become the new.

    Generally, It takes a while to build up a character to a point where I feel the reader can know them on spot and free me from having to put in the introductory work. That is a good place to be. So killing them off kind of robs me and the reader of a lot of the work already established. So killing off characters, for me, is hardly a goal. But...it does happen, as it should, when the story demands. And if the story demands, all that plot armor will fall away and they can drop in droves.

    Main Characters, I think, ought to live to the end of the story, at least, else why were we following someone who the story as not ultimately going to be about? I've seen it happen at times, MC falls off and another character fills in, but its not often, and its less often a really cool thing to do.

    I most of my stories, which would be mostly short stories, the POV tends to die at the end. I am not sure why it worked out that way, but I seem to do that to them a lot. In the bigger stories though, I tend to keep the ones I have invested a lot of time in. Seems only right.
  11. The way reincarnation works in my first series is that the characters are not the same after they reincarnate into another lifetime. Therefore, thematically, the character is dead, but their soul, as it were, continues.

    In my second series it's a bit different, and I'm still working on how different it is.
    Chessie2 likes this.
  12. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

    Man, I WISH! Because I write romance killing off people is a no-go. In general though it seems a good idea to have a valid reason for killing off characters. The only time I killed anyone off it was part of the plot (and he was a bad guy).
  13. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

    Disney kills em off all the time...and then has them get back up cause they were not really gone.
  14. I'm so sick of that trend, not just in Disney but in other movies and books and tv shows. Grr.

    When an important character dies and stays dead, it almost feels refreshing. That's one reason why I like The Lion King so much, come to think of it.
  15. Rebekkah V.

    Rebekkah V. Acolyte

    Nasty topic because I’m biased here. A few years ago, I had a really bad reading experience that heavily impacted how I feel about killing main characters.

    Though I do a lot of killing when it comes to minor characters, I’m a little hesitant about the major ones. I prefer going for their friends, family and allies or doing him/her severe physical or emotional harm.

    When I consider whether to kill or not to kill a character, I ask myself questions like: Was does the death of this or that character contribute to the plot? Does it help the other characters to grow or does it kill great story potential? Is there a character who can replace the perished one without being a poor replacement? Are the other narratives able to compensate the gap?

    I once killed a main character because her story was simply told. She started as a villain, changed sides and made up for her evil deeds. Eventually, she sacrificed herself in a battle to help another main character and redeemed herself. I could have let her live, but there wasn’t really a place left where she could go, killing her just felt right.

    I think killing off important characters is an act of balance for both the plot and the readers. On the one hand, major characters are crucial for your plot (if they aren't, you have to do something about that), on the other hand, eventually it will become unrealistic that they always escape death. I believe that it’s always better to kill a character whose story is told than keeping him/her alive due to feelings of fondness. Any further story-arc you invent for such a character will feel forced because the character doesn’t have a function in the plot any longer. In think that a plot can gain much from a well-chosen and well-written character death. Plus, the readers are more likely to forgive that though it still might be painful for them.
  16. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

    The only time this worked for me was in Beauty and Beast, I thought it matched up well to the act of love undertaken, but most often, I think this is a cheap ploy to jerk some tears out of me and then have it not count. I actually find it a little aggravating. But...it works for Disney and it usually a romance type story, so I suspect it would work in romance as well ;)
    Chessie2 likes this.
  17. Malik

    Malik Auror

    All of these questions. What does it prove, and what does it mean? If you kill a major character, it damned well better mean something.

    He Who Shall Remain Nameless cheapened character deaths by making every "Red Shirt" into a fleshed-out character with a backstory. Fantasy readers now know that any fantasy character, no matter how beloved, can die at any moment, because a lot of authors are following HWSRN's lead on this. (This is a tremendous advantage if you can write scenes that read as if your major characters are in actual danger. Do it right, and your readers will actually fear for your characters.)

    I'd love to see someone flip this around, and have a major character who has survived inestimable odds get snuffed doing something mundane, the way most people die. A tree falls on his house, or he chokes to death at dinner, or something. Just, gone by the next chapter, and the story shifts to someone else.

    GodSniper 2.jpg
    Rebekkah V. likes this.
  18. Ruru

    Ruru Troubadour

    To me, the crucial elements are purpose and scarcity.

    To scarcity first. If you are going to kill a main character, it cheapens it some how to do it often, even if you have a cast big enough to support it. I think it puts the writer in danger of scaring the reader off fully engaging with the main characters, in the sense of 'I hesitate to get emotionally attached to anyone because more than likely the author is going to kill them off.' A rare event provides far greater impact, even if the event itself is fairly mundane.

    As to purpose, that's been touched on a bunch of times above. For me, killing a main character, and the manner in which its done, is sort of a trump card. This is the point in the story where things are at their darkest, where all the fears you made your reader feel over the past conflicts are made to come true, and you show them that all the prior events were really just the path that lead to the door you just lead them through. This also means for me that a dead MC stays dead - that's too much of an emotional promise to go back on. Sure, toy with the 'didn't see the end of a dire event where maybe MC died or not, we don't know', but otherwise they stay dead for me.

    I only have two main characters in my main story, so the decision to kill one of them some where within what is likely now book 4 (of 5) was a major one. Still to be written, it is without a doubt a major plot point, and the reason I chose to do it was to bring about the final decent into madness of the other MC, and a signalling to the reader that we are now on a crash course for rock bottom. I think achieving that was worth the loss, which is what I think a big part of having a purpose is about.
    Rebekkah V. and pmmg like this.
  19. Peat

    Peat Sage

    Two occasions I can think of where MCs died before the end...

    In David Gemmell's Legend, Druss dies about... hm, 2/3rds of the way through? Totally works because the rest of the cast is strong enough to carry the rest of the book (although he's back as a ghost which is ho-hum), his death is heavily foreshadowed and a great moment, and the whole book is built upon the expectation of death anyway.

    GGK's Fionavar Tapestry - Kevin dies halfway through the second book when he offers himself in human sacrifice to stop a magical winter. This one works really well for me as it was a surprise, and its touching, but crucially, the way the memory of him plays on the remaining four characters is really poignant and helps grow them immensely.
  20. D.G. Laderoute

    D.G. Laderoute Dreamer

    Characters exist solely to engage in dramatic conflict. If their death serves the story, which is the aggregate name we give to dramatic conflict laid out in a narrative form, then so be it--kill 'em.

    Okay, that's easy to SAY. I know that many writers get really attached to their characters. Hell, I do! In my novel on Wattpad, "The Children's Crusade", the evolving story drew me ever closer to the conclusion that a major character needed to die. This would be a catalyst for shaping the story and the other characters going forward in a way it needed to be shaped. When the time came to write the death scene, it was actually tough...but it was also satisfying. The result was a point in the story that many readers remembered vividly, having got them invested in reading the rest of the way through.

    So, if it makes the story better, be merciless and kill those fictional people off!

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