Killing Main Characters

I don’t know about any of you, but I used to despise authors who killed off main characters. How could they, right? Especially if those characters are part of a series and the readers get so emotionally attached to them. It seems despicable!

I remember when a friend of mine went BERZERK after reading a certain modern series where the main character dies at the end. She was so utterly disgusted with the author, I thought to myself, “I’ll never kill off one of my main characters.”

But now, as a writer, I see the benefit and difficulties of a potential main character’s death. And, as a medical professional, I also realize how ridiculous it is for an author to work so hard to keep a MC alive. I can’t help but roll my eyes in disgust when I read about horrendous wounds and injuries and atrocities that happen to a MC and, miraculously!, they survive! I mean, how do authors get crap like that past an editor and publisher?

Coming from working in a hospital in downtown Detroit, let me tell you, that is not what happens. When people are wounded or blown up by a bomb, they either don’t make it, or they’re scarred or disabled for the rest of their lives. Unless you write fantasy or magical realism where there literally is a magical cure for an injury… THERE IS NO MAGICAL CURE!

So, yeah, now I’m plotting and planning the deaths of a MC or two in a few of my books, and it is not easy. It requires so much work to justify their deaths to the readers. I believe some authors are afraid to cause an uproar in their fan base and lose money, but if it fits the story, then kill them off!

Let’s be real, if J.K. Rowling had killed off Harry, there certainly would have been riots in the streets. But she still had the authorial right to kill him if she wanted. Life happens. And in books, life should still happen.

Am I right? What do you think? Keep or kill MCs? Why?

A

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44 thoughts on “Killing Main Characters

  1. As reading attaches you to certain characters, of course you want them to live and be, but at the same time, often the novels that are the deepest, kill of the main character to prove a thought, to stress the idea, to do many things, and that makes it special and the books good, if they are killed with no purpose, then, it is not justified.

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    • I agree 100%!!!! There always needs to be a reason to kill a MC besides shock value, but life is life and we, as readers, learn how to navigate life based on what we read. Sometimes we learn a lot from character deaths and the way the other characters deal with it. One of the books that taught me the most about MC deaths was Flowers for Algernon. It’s still in my top ten favorite books despite the fact that a MC dies. Because it got my emotions involved. And once you have a readers’ emotions, you have their attention and their devotion.

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  2. It can’t be for cheap shock value, but I have killed a few main characters off in my day. I will probably kill my MC at the end of my current series, but because it’s fantasy he’ll still end up with a happyish ending (a la Frodo going into the West).

    I would have been perfectly fine if JKR killed Harry, tbh. I feel like that would have been fitting. As it is, the way Deathly Hallows retconned it so that he *couldn’t* die felt like a cop out.

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    • I see your point with Harry, but those who feel that way are probably in the minority. It definitely would have been interesting to see Harry die. I do think MCs have to die sometimes. That’s life. I look forward to reading your fantasy series!

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  3. MC deaths can be very important and make a strong point in the novel. But if it’s done for stupid reasons (resetting the board so the writer can use new characters in the same world-setting, or to show the pointlessness of trying to change things, etc) then all that happens is that you alienate readers, who might just stop reading your stuff and recommending it to friends.

    I once read a fantasy trilogy which ended by killing off all the likable MCs and keeping the ones that were asshats. I felt like I’d wasted a lot of time and now refuse to read anything else by that person ever again.

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    • If all a writer wants to do is introduce new characters, then their original characters were not complex enough to maintain the plot line. It’s a tenuous relationship between author and reader and if you don’t leave them with anyone or anything to relate to, like you mentioned in that trilogy, then they’ve wasted the reader’s time and their own.
      P.S., I loved your description. Asshat!! Haha!!

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  4. I am writing a trilogy and one of my MCs dies midway through book 2. It has to be like that because the story is based on real life events – and as you say – people die in real life, but from a story point of view her death triggers a number of significant consequences, without which there would be no books, and so as sad as it is, I feel it’s justified.

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  5. Reading something where the MC gets killed off has always been an issue with me, especially if it’s someone I love. The whole Fred and George thing just really, really made me sad because they were an icon. There were others I felt JK could have dealt away with. I think it also depends on how the storyline flows. Some authors can do it really well and you go, Oh, yeah, this fits with the story, it makes so and so this way…….. but like with the F&G boys, I don’t think it was necessary and more of a shock factor. It would have been like killing off Hermione or something, in my opinion.

    That being said… If I had a character I wanted or needed to kill off, I have no qualms about it. I have more issues with trying to decide if I want subject A or subject B to be the hero when I think the heroine would be good with both.

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    • I had a hard time with Fred and George, too. I think I read somewhere that JK killed Fred off, she did it to show the terrible wastefulness and senselessness of war and violence. That not everyone we love escapes cleanly. I think that was probably the most shocking death of the series for me. I still miss Fred. 😦
      Ooh… your issues with which hero works better is quite interesting. I try to pick the more unlikely of the two, but then I can talk myself into thinking that they’re both unlikely. Haha!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I totally miss Fred. I can get Dumbledore. I can get Tonks and Lupin, but not Fred. But I totally get JK’s reasons why. Makes perfect sense.

        Oh, I can talk both my heroes in, and both out. My problem is I have this whole interconnected web of people, and while my heroine would be better off with one hero, if I do that, I can’t connect the stories the same! Oh the issues… considering most of these novels are still in my head. I talk to way too many people in my head.

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      • Haha!!! I do, too, so don’t be ashamed. I think I’m better friends with some of my characters than I am with people in real life. Is that sad?

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  6. Like the rest of the people who have commented, I agree that it’s okay to kill off a main character if it serves a purpose.

    But now I’m thinking, what if you killed off THE main character in the middle of the book? It would be fascinating to have the story switch over to a different main character who you never expected would be one. Maybe the character you originally thought was the MC was never really it at all! Do you know of any books like that?

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    • Hmm! I don’t know of any books off the top of my head, but I may have to think about it for a while. That would be interesting, but I think I’d need to know, as a reader, about the death before I invest in the book. Like, it should be in the blurb on the back cover that the MC dies. I don’t know how well I’d do with a MC death in the middle of the story without warning, you know? But if I’m a little prepared going into it, I’d be much more likely to finish the book. Or is that wimpy on my part? Haha!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Haha I see your point! I’m not sure–I guess I would probably keep reading if the book was well-written and compelling, even if the MC died in the middle. Just to see what happened. 🙂 Although it is true that I would definitely not be a happy camper, at least at first!

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  7. IMO, Careful killing your protagonist.
    Your protagonist is the character your audience identifies with most. They want to see him get to the end they want to see him win.

    People feel upset when other MC’s die because the protagonist feels hurt and because of the message the protagonist conveys about this individual. Did they care about them or not? The protagonist tells the reader what to feel and how to think.
    People feel especially personally attacked and traumatized when the Protagonist dies…. I hate it when writers do this.

    For example: It’s like you’re married… Your wife dies. Are you going to hang around with her best friends every day after the fact? Probably not. You cared about your wife, not the people in her story. People typically feel the same way.

    The protagonist projects their experiences on the reader. The protagonist develops the readers trust.

    If you kill the protagonist the story has to end to make it comfortable.

    People will usually stop and shut the book refusing to read past that point. I’ve done it. Most of the time if a series tries to continue after the death of the protagonist they will bring the protagonist back somehow because people really do not like it.

    Some people will keep reading… but… for instance if the protagonist dies the story dies the reader personally involved with them.

    Ending the series or the novel with the death of the protagonist is one thing it’s even natural but just randomly killing him in the middle of the story… people will become less invested in the story.

    What if she killed Harold at the end? I would have thrown my TV across the room. But because she didn’t I bought the movie but feeling threatened with it was thrilling.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting! I don’t know as I’ve ever read a book that killed a MC off in the middle and then kept trying to continue. I do know that people were in uproar when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed of Sherlock Holmes. Enough that he ended up bringing him back to life because people were so outraged.
      I think you give a lot of valid points about killing protagonists, but as I said in the post, if it takes a miracle to keep the MC alive (based on genre, of course), it doesn’t seem believable. I know I’ve walked away from some authors because of that.
      And as an LOL, I had to look up what IMO meant. Haha!! I’m so bad at computer speak. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. As a self-described brutal writer, I end up killing off characters a lot. And sometimes they are main character. I don’t do it for shock value or anything (I always have a reason). The thing I find about it that’s tricky is figuring out if I might want to use them later or not. I have a rule about never cheating death in my stories. So I have to be careful who I bump off.

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    • Brutal writer! I love that phrase. Shock value is a cop-out, so I’m glad you do your homework before killing a character. And depending on the genre, multiple deaths in a book is applicable and even necessary.

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  9. I also think if the MC’s death suites the book then do it. I’m not halfway into my book and I already know within the last few pages my main character will die, and it saddens me so much, but it has to happen.

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    • I agree. I can’t stand it when authors pull a miracle healing out of their hind ends just so their MC won’t die. It’s ridiculous and off-putting and I’m less likely to read anything else of theirs afterwards.
      And I know it’s hard as writers to kill off characters you love. I’m sending out my MG fantasy series to agents and I already know which characters will die by the end of the series, and it tears me up inside. But it has to be done.

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  10. I know one thing: George R.R. Martin goes way too far killing off MC. He barely gets the story of a character going before he kills the poor fucker off and sometimes this makes me want to kick him in the balls.

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  11. I knows what modern series you are talking about! Well I think I do and man did I feel the same way as your friend but I am a fan of killing off a main character. George Martin is one of my favorite authors.

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  12. Yes, when an author kills of a certain loved main character, its so damn tragic. Ive experienced it a couple of times. But I don’t criticise it. I think it takes guts to kill off your main character. Because once you’ve killed them off, they’re gone and not coming back! I think it is definitely necessary to kill of a character at times. It can bring so much emotion to the story.

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    • It is necessary, I agree, to kill off characters, and it can be a gut wrenching decision as a writer. I used to criticize it a lot. Now I only object when there was no underlying cause or lesson to be learned. Even if the lesson is, crap happens.

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  13. Just wanted to add my little bit to this. I have no issue as a reader to a main character being killed. Because in my experience as a reader I’ve never come across an author doing it just to do it. (Even though Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451 shouldn’t have killed off Clarisse.) And as a writer I’d also have no issue with it. Characters die in books. It happens.

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  14. I think killing the main character in a novel is a great move that can set you apart from other stories. It gives you the chance to develop your secondary characters and your antagonist. Get a background of them, their life and their story. Anything that shows how they ended up at this place in time. I always favor secondary characters to the main character because I’m always so curious about them. That is just me personally.

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    • Oh, I agree! My favorite characters of all time are so rarely the MCs. I love the nuances of their personalities and their relationships and effect on the MC. I think the only MC I actually adore is Anne from “Anne of Green Gables.” Other than that, it’s secondary characters and antagonists al the way for me.
      And thanks for the re-blog!

      Liked by 1 person

  15. I have allowed all three of my main characters to die in the last book of a trilogy series. Of course, each character had lived a fulfilling life, and had aged well into their seventies. I decided to write their deaths in the epilogue to show the culmination. Many of my readers–surprisingly, in emails–wrote and said they enjoyed how I spoke of each characters’ death, and in some cases, they even read the epilogue twice. I suppose if the character’s death is “dignified,” then the readers can take the loss much better. But as you know, all readers are not alike. 🙂

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    • See, I would LOVE to read an epilogue like that. To know the characters I loved led a full and rich life. Death is part of life, as we know, so I like to know how people will eventually fade off this mortal coil. I agree that dignified deaths are much easier to swallow. That’s how we all wish to die, I think. But when we’re shocked by a death that’s unexpected and at a younger age, it’s harder for us to imagine, because we believe everyone should die when they’re old.

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      • As a writer, I say use your better judgement–write what you want, but keep your readers in mind. More mature readers can handle death better than younger readers, I think.

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      • I would hope so, but some mature readers I know still get pretty irate when a MC dies. I’m a lot more okay with it now than I was even a few years ago.
        I agree with your writing advice. I do want my books to appeal to readers, but if I don’t like the story, why write it?

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  16. I recycled one of my MC’s from the history, his tragic and gruesome death and its aftermath included. One of the main plots is about the horrible effects of his death, unleashing revolts, civil wars and all kinds of mayhem. I think I will weep when I kill him.

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