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 Her young adult fantasy novel, SURRENDER (The Ferryman + The Flame #1) is available on amazon.