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Main Characters: How To Kill Your Protagonist Without Killing Your Fanbase

There are many reasons writers decide to kill off their protagonist. The trick is to do it for the right reasons and in a way that won’t make the reader stomp off in a huff. If you’re a writer considering doing away with the main character (MC) in your short story or novel, we’ve got a few tips to keep in mind.

In 1893, thousands of English readers canceled their subscription to The Strand when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle simply was tired of the series and wanted to move on to other things. He was a little surprised by his readers’ outrage, and, eventually, he succumbed to public pressure and resurrected the beloved detective in The Hound of the Baskervilles.

When Tony Soprano was killed in the season finale of The Sopranos—well, we’re assuming he was whacked, as the tension built and the screen suddenly went black—the audience had no choice but to accept it. The series was over. And the final scene (or lack thereof) packed a serious punch.

Alice Sebold took a different—and highly successful—approach to killing off her main character. In The Lovely Bones, her protagonist and narrator is a young girl who has just been murdered, and she comments on the events that happen after her death:

“These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections—sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent—that happened after I was gone. And I began to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it.”

If you’re considering killing off your main character, keep the following tips in mind:

  1. Be somewhat realistic. It may be hard to swallow if your main character survives what no one should be able to. When a jumbo jet crashes in the desert but your hero, Jack, walks away unscathed thanks to his skill with a nail file and a soda can, you can practically hear your readers groan.
  2. Plot problems. Don’t kill the protagonist if you are having problems with the storyline and simply don’t know what to do next: The heroine finds herself between an enraged grizzly and a cliff—if you can’t figure out a plausible way to extricate her, this shouldn’t be the only reason to kill her off.
  3. Beware morality statements. Perhaps your main character’s death is a natural consequence of his fatal flaw. He is a functioning alcoholic and sometimes drinks and drives. Be very careful not to make this into a morality statement by waving it over your readers’ heads: This is what happens to drunk drivers! You want the story to be powerful, not your personal statement on drunk driving.
  4. Don’t kill the MC off in a trivial or anticlimactic way. In other words, unless it’s tied to the theme or plot in some significant way, Hattie Heroine should not die from an infected paper cut. If we’ve invested in her character, we need some tension building up to her death.
  5. Avoid resurrections. Please don’t be tempted to miraculously bring a main character back to life unless it’s an integral part of your plot or theme (like a medical thriller centered around a miraculous new drug that reverses death). What? It was actually Hattie Heroine’s twin sister who died of infection? Like an ending where the MC wakes up and realizes everything was just a dream, a miraculous resurrection can be a little cheesy—or an easy out.

As a writer, consider the impact your protagonist’s death will have on your audience. There’s a fine line between a meaningful ending and ticking off your readers. Your reader has invested emotionally in your main character, so make sure it’s important or relevant that he/she be killed off—and preferably not death by paper cut.

For more strategies that will get literary agents and editors excited about your writing, subscribe to Submit Write Now!—a free newsletter from Writer’s Relief delivered to your inbox weekly!

 

Ronnie L. Smith, President of Writer’s Relief, Inc., an author’s submission service that helps creative writers get published by targeting their poems, essays, short stories, and books to the best-suited literary agents or editors of literary journals. www.WritersRelief.com

21 Responses to Main Characters: How To Kill Your Protagonist Without Killing Your Fanbase

  1. I definitely struggle more with #1 (Be realistic) than anything. Even when the storyline calls for it, I do pretty much anything to avoid killing off my main character! I get so attached to the characters I create, I end up writing myself into corners because I don’t want to let anything bad happen to them. I’ve probably often left my readers groaning!

  2. I HATE when I read or watch something that uses the examples illustrated in number five. Thanks for these tips!

  3. I have a difficulty killing my main characters, but recently, in a work in progress, I killed a major character. It was difficult, but it moved the plot along better than leaving him alive. These are great points to remember!

  4. My sweetie also hates resurrection stories. But they’re more than cliche–they’re part of the archetypes everyone has in our subconscious. Writers go back to them again and again because rebirth is part of every mythology, and one of all humans deepest desires. The tale of Odin hanging from the tree, the Buddha sitting beneath the same, Persephone in the land of the dead, of course Jesus–all religions and mythologies have tales of someone who has been brought to the brink, or just over, and snatched back. You see it work successfully in everything from *SPOILERS* Harry Potter to Game of Thrones.
    The key is to show that person changed. The person who has been to hell and back must be, in some key way, in entirely new person.
    Then again, I have #5 in my own novel, so perhaps my viewpoint is not to be trusted…I’ve been reading a lot of Joseph Campbell!

  5. Correction: Sherlock Holmes was resurrected in The Adventure of the Empty House, not Hound of the Baskervilles.

  6. The only time you kill your main character, or even bit players, is when that’s what happens in the story. Most readers will know straight off if the death is ‘organic’ or a mere contrivance.

    I always wonderd if Tolkien didn’t intend to kill off Frodo Baggins, and in the end couldn’t bring himself to do it. He found a compromise that worked. But that solution isn’t readily available to most writers. Margaret Mitchell would have looked awfully silly if Melanie had sailed off with a bunch of elves at the end of ‘Gone with the Wind’.

  7. I keep waiting for Dexter to get caught and face the music but I hope, although hopelessly evil, that he lives on.

  8. Rob, Absolutely right. We weren’t clear: It wasn’t so much a resurrection as an appearance. Conan Doyle resumed writing about his character in Hound of the Baskervilles. You are correct that Sherlock Holmes himself was not “brought back to life” in the novel. Rather, Conan Doyle brought back his creation for a reunion tour in The Hound of the Baskervilles. published in The Strand magazine between 1901-1902. This story, a sort of prequel, was set before Holmes had his unfortunate cliff diving accident, so there was no resurrection just yet.

  9. I think one of the examples in fiction is the way Richard Matheson killed off Richard Neville in I Am Legend. It isn’t necessarily a morality statement, but facilitates ongoing discussion/examination for the reader because it touches upon themes that are universal (social in and out groups, minorities and majorities, etc).
    I personally don’t go for resurrections but The Lovely Bones would have to be an exception, only because the voice of the protagonist was written so well.
    As for Harry Potter. I’m still not sure whether Harry’s death would have been better or not. As a writer, I would have killed him off, only because I wouldn’t want to be placed under pressure to continue the story.

  10. Even though my romance short stories never end happily ever after, I haven’t killed off any of my main characters. I may decide to bring back some of these protagonists to wreck havoc on more people’s lives.

  11. Years ago I wrote a story about “the other woman” in a relationship, who was, at story’s end, killed by the wife. I had many questions from readers who were invested in this “other woman”. The one question I heard over and over was, did the wife kill her or did the author? I resurrected that story, took a hard look at it and found the REAL ending. It isn’t the “other woman’s” death. It was her own realization that she preferred relationships that were open-ended. She was someone who could not commit.
    I say don’t be in a hurry to take the easy way out, let the story germinate, however long it takes.

  12. In the original Rambo novel, not the book of the film, but the true original, Rambo dies at the end.

    It was, as the author knew, the right ending for the poor mad dog who didn’t fit into society. He and the sherrif were both ‘walking wounded’, scarred for ever by their respective wars.

    But Hollywood didn’t want to kill the golden goose. The subsequent stories all rang false to me.

    Gyppo

  13. This is really good advice. One of my favorite books turned movie, My Sister’s Keeper, changed when the book became a movie. I think when the MC dies in the book it added more depth to the story overall. But when I saw the movie and the MC lived, that change made it, as Gyppo put it, ring false to me. I was extremely disappointed.

  14. I think if you’re going to kill off an MC it should MEAN something, but one thing I hate is the amnesia killing. The body isn’t dead but the mind is sort of thing. You follow a character for long time and then suddenly the character “gets amnesia”. I’ve seen that happen and I was willing to go with it until the character became so stilted and robotic that there was NO reason to continue following the story. Even if the MC regains their memory, that period of time has ruined the entire story for me. The MC went from a vibrant, passionate, HUMAN personality to a robotic, emotionless, clumsy (and I don’t mean physically) cartoon. I saw the potential there for a great idea, but the writing on that character changed so much I felt it was obvious the author wasn’t in it. Anything that is death-like should be fluid and belong. It should never feel contrived.

  15. I agree with your comments . . . that the death of an MC should be avoided, but when your books are an historic series of fiction, the MC has to die. They can’t live forever. You have two choices: Have the MC continue to tell the story of his/her descendants from his/her POV as a spirit,or develop a new MC who is just as admirable and appealing as the former MC. An example of this is the story of Roots by Alex Haley. So every time a MC dies because they age, he or she should die in a memorable way and be replaced by another leading character who continues in the path of the first MC. This can be in a slightly different way, one that makes it interesting for your audience. You can continue a subplot, for example, showing that the struggle of the first MC continues, but with an intriguing twist.
    Any other thoughts about this?

  16. In the book I’m working on now, Age of Treason, there’s a character I’ve been fantasizing about killing, thinking of all the possibilities of his death (I’m psychotic, I know). :) I really hate scenarios like #5, such as the end of Breaking Dawn. Talk about let-down! The character’s a drug addict and I’m trying to give him one last chance of redemption. Any ideas?

  17. I’ve been thinking about killing off my protagonist as well. She’ll go in knowing full well that she would die, potentially saving the word, and never have a chance to say goodbye. I want it to be an emotional but significant ending for her, and the weight of the story will fall to the devastated shoulders of the one who loved her before closing. As much as I would love for her to live, I feel, since she has always been alienated by the world and she would never live in peace, she may as well die. And it must be significant enough for the world to cast off their thoughts of her being some sort of demon. In her death, she will be freed.

  18. I’m writing a series of short stories set in an alternate reality – and plan on killing off both my MCs at the end of the final story. But it’s set during a world war, so I don’t want to fudge it.

    Mind, there’s plenty of space for prequel stories, if I’m inclined to come back to the universe.

  19. I read fiction because i want to discover new stories, not because i want to read a different variation of the same story over and over again.
    When i start reading books of a particular author, let’s say it’s in the thriller genre, if at the end of the third book the bad guy got caught/killed by the good guy for the third time in a row i’ll never read a book from this author again.
    I want the good guy to die in the middle of the book sometimes to be replaced by someone else.
    I want the bad guy to win sometimes (wether by not being so bad after all or just because good triumph over evil is such a crappy cliché : just look at the real world).
    I can go through a “classic” resolution from time to time if i know that this author can surprise me (the best would be those that surprise me the most by a “classic” resolution because so much of their repertoire is really unexpected).
    I read between 300 and 500 fiction books a year, if you want me in your readers following, by all means, don’t be shy about killing your main characters.

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