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I am an aspiring author, but I have written several short 'test novels.' With each of those, it became increasingly clear how you have to develop the main character, the protagonist. After all, the story is about the protagonist. The reader needs to like the protagonist and want him to win, otherwise he will stop reading. Therefore, I am unsure about killing off the protagonist. This is not because I like the character too much, but because the reader might stop reading.

I looked up Killing off a Character, but it didn't quite answer my question: Should you kill off the protagonist. It dealt more with main characters - characters that are important to the novel but not necessarily the protagonist. My question deals more with the hero, the person everyone is rooting for. How can you kill that person without losing the reader? Is it possible at all? Is it even advisable?

Looking over the above linked question, I understand the points being made. Don't make the death meaningless, don't kill someone just because he's in the way, etc. The death has to mean something. But how can you justify anything the death has to prove by killing off the hero, basically the main reason the reader is reading?

This question is especially a problem for first-person novels. If the hero keeps on narrating after death, the reader is probably going to wonder where he is. Heaven? Hell? Did the character die at all?

The only place I could see the hero dying without catastrophic results would be at the very end of the book. If his death can prove something and then the book ends immediately after that... that could work. However, the problem still remains that the reader will doubtless be displeased.

So is it advisable to kill the protagonist? If it is, how can you do so without alienating the reader?

EDIT: After reviewing all of the excellent answers that have been submitted for this question, I feel that most of them each have a part of the answer. If I were to choose one, however, I would have to select the comment supplied by @GreenAsJade on clockwork's answer, which was also very good.

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    Harm to a protagonist, sometimes in death, is a huge part of the tragedy genre. – person27 Sep 11 '14 at 7:35
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    I don't know. Maybe you should ask George R.R. Martin for his opinion. – mcv Sep 11 '14 at 11:45
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    Romeo and Juliet woulda been a lot more boring if the protagonists didn't die. – naught101 Sep 12 '14 at 7:44
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    Everything you write is guaranteed to alienate some readers. That can be difficult to accept. However, if you write while trying to appeal to every reader, your story will surely stutter and die. Epic heroes are usually expected to win the day and get the girl, but there are other types of protagonists who aren't. – lea Sep 12 '14 at 19:28
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    Just because I don't see mention of it: Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho killed off someone whom the audiences expected to be the protagonist (or at least a main character) long before the end of the film. And you can certainly write a book where the very first thing that happens is that the protagonist dies... and then tell the rest of the story in flashbacks and interviews and resulting effects. (Citizen Kane, or for a real tour de force despite not killing the character, Memento.) As @Clockwork said, the question is always whether the death makes for a satisfying story. – keshlam Sep 13 '14 at 1:09

13 Answers 13

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It's definitely possible to do this without losing the reader. The New Testament is a story where the "protagonist" dies towards the end. I'm sure plenty of readers are quite satisfied with that.

Much like the Gospels, killing the protagonist is advisable only if it really means something.

Emphasis on the really. Even if you make your character a martyr whose death brings about a sweeping social change that lasts for centuries and cleanses you of your sins, it doesn't mean anything if your reader doesn't care. Does your reader sob when the protagonist finally breaks the chains of his oppressors and dies a free man? Does your reader smile at the earnest deathbed confession of your protagonist, who has finally come to terms with his life and family after all those years of struggling? Can your reader not stop thinking of the warrior who bravely held her ground until the very end? Does the death of the salesman point out the futility and meaninglessness in this world and brings up philosophical questions in the reader's mind? Does your reader understand why the death had to happen (even if they wanted a happy ending for the character)? Then you can kill your main character. Delicately. Carefully. Probably with the intent from the very beginning that you're going to kill this protagonist off and that is the definite culmination of their entire purpose or character arc.

Even if their death is at the beginning of the story and the entire rest of the fiction is just flashbacks, it has to mean something and it has to be their purpose. Don’t just shuffle them out of the way by saying, “Oh yeah, and then she fell down the stairs, how tragic, oopsie daisy,” because that's when readers start feeling ripped off.

And there are plenty of stories out there (besides the New Testament) you can look at that pulled this off successfully. I’m afraid to bring any up because, hello, spoiler alert, but I can think of a good one where the death is the main point of the piece. One of my favorite short stories is "Bullet in the Brain" which is a quick read that handles the death of the main character in an interesting way. I think this is a good example of how you've really got a lot of options out there for where and when to kill off the protagonist. It just depends on how you want the story to flow and what kind of meaning you want to give to said death.

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    Even if their death is at the beginning of the story and the entire rest of the fiction is just flashbacks, it has to mean something and it has to be their purpose American Beauty is a good example of this. – Eric J. Sep 10 '14 at 19:23
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    This is a very good answer. I created an account just to upvote it. – Seth Sep 11 '14 at 0:56
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    Is the "meaningfulness" of the death, described in this answer, enough? I don't think so. I think that not only does it need to be meaningful (as eloquently described here) but it is also necessary that the story continues compellingly after the death. It's not enough that I understand that the death had to happen. I also have to be compelled to find out what happens next... which means I have to care about something else in the story in addition to the fate of the protagonist. If you have not arranged that thing that I care about, you lose me at the protagonist's death... – GreenAsJade Sep 11 '14 at 7:09
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    You might check out the works of Raymond E. Feist. He writes multi-protagonist stories with recurring characters ranging from kings to scullery maids, and is adept at making the reader care about them enough to be sad when they inevitably die (sometimes quite pointlessly) without it ruining the entire story. – Perkins Sep 11 '14 at 23:27
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    Game of Thrones is the first thing that comes to mind for me. The protagonists' deaths fuel acts of revenge, furthering the plot along. Rather than deaths being endings, they are beginnings of even more conflict. – erdekhayser Sep 13 '14 at 0:18
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I'm not an accomplished writer (heck, I'm not even an unaccomplished writer), but here are some techniques used by actual real-life authors:

  • Charlotte's Web: The eponymous character (the spider) dies near the end, but the author deals with this by having two main characters; the spider and the pig. When the spider dies, the attention is drawn to the pig, and then the spider's children.

  • Uncle Tom's Cabin: Again, the eponymous character dies towards the end, but the story continues with the rest of the cast, focusing on the effect that Uncle Tom had on them and it's repercussions.

  • Sounder: I have no idea how this ended, because I read it as a kid, hated the fact that they killed the dog, and never read it again. There may be a lesson there, not sure.

  • Bridge to Terabithia: Again, two main characters, one dies, and the book switches to the other character and the first main character's sister, who was previously a nobody in the book.

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    Bridge to Terabithia still has the power to rip my guts out even as an adult. What a great book. That and Charlotte's Web are excellent examples. – Lauren Ipsum Sep 10 '14 at 23:45
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    AHA! I should reread Bridge to Terebithia. Thanks, Eykanal. – Thomas Myron Sep 11 '14 at 1:17
  • @TommyMyron - Glad to help! – eykanal Sep 11 '14 at 1:48
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    Re Sounder: LOL! You are so right! Two words: Old Yeller (Of course, the dogs are not the true protags for those books. Compare to The Call of the Wild and White Fang.) – dmm Sep 12 '14 at 19:52
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    @dmm: I saw Old Yeller when I was just a bit too young, and had to go out and spend a while sobbing in the lobby. Did recover in time to catch the resolution of the story, though. I (seem to) remember the event more clearly than the movie, probably because I've retold that story too many times. – keshlam Sep 13 '14 at 1:17
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We've addressed "the protagonist continues to talk after dying, even in first person" here:

Ways for main character to influence world following their death

1st person story, but the main character will die in the end and some of the story needs to be told after his death. How to solve this problem?

It sounds like your concern is that the death of the protagonist means the absolute end of the storyline. As in, there's no room for sequels, nothing for the reader to wonder about, no way for the story to go on and on in the reader's imagination.

1) Okay, it ends. So what? Not every story has to be part of a series.

2) Only kill the main character at the end of a series. If the character dies at the end of book 10 after a lengthy arc and struggle, it's a very different feeling than if the character lives and dies in one book.

3) The series continues from the POV of another character. To take a recent modern example, both the book and the TV show of Game of Thrones feature a particular character in the first book/season who then dies shockingly about 90% of the way in. Most readers/watchers were gobsmacked because this person seemed to be one of the pivots of the tale. Other characters took up the story.

4) The Reichenbach Gambit, aka "Surprise! I'm not dead after all." Your character might appear to be dead to the other characters but in fact isn't, for whatever reason. This catapults you into the sequel, as the other characters will inevitably find out the greatly exaggerated reports.

(ETA This isn't just the "I faked my death" trope, but also might have a sci-fi component, like the Trill in Star Trek. They are a joined species, so the symbiont can take a new host and retain the memories of its previous life. So Dax, the symbiont, remembers being part of the host Curzon, and when Curzon dies and Dax is joined to a new host Jadzia, Jadzia Dax now has the memory of Dax's friendship with Sisko.)

  • Thank you for the links, Lauren. The first person comment was a spur of the moment example that I should have researched. My concern is not that the death of the protagonist will bring about the end of the novel. My concern is that if the novel does not end with the death, then there is a substantial risk that the reader will not want to read about whoever inevitably has to take the hero's place. My concern is that the hero made the novel, and killing him might destroy it. – Thomas Myron Sep 10 '14 at 18:59
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    @TommyMyron 1) you're contradicting yourself in your comment; in one sentence you want to kill the hero and in the next sentence killing the hero will destroy the novel. I don't know what you intend. 2) If someone is taking the hero's place, then whoever or whatever your new protagonist is must also be worthy of the reader's time and attention. So you have to develop your second (not secondary) protagonist, either before or after the first one dies. – Lauren Ipsum Sep 10 '14 at 19:30
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    I see the confusion. I'm working along the assumption that there is a death at some point in the novel. What I was saying is if that death is not at the end of the book, one could conclude that the reader will potentially not be interested in finishing it, now that the hero is dead. Would this be a correct conclusion? – Thomas Myron Sep 10 '14 at 21:57
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    @TommyMyron Now I follow you. The upshot is that there are several ways you can make sure the reader is still interested in the book despite the death of the hero. Read the answers here for suggestions. – Lauren Ipsum Sep 10 '14 at 23:44
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Even if readers are radically and nearly exclusively committed to the protagonist, there are several ways for the protagonist to "speak after death".

The protagonist's legacy can speak. (This is covered in the answers to "Ways for main character to influence world following their death", linked in Lauren Ipsum's answer. The legacy of a Cause does not seem to be mentioned in those answers, though "What Would Dead Guy Do?" comes close.)

This may take the form of writings, recollections, and the surviving influence on individuals and the society. One technique for doing this is to introduce shorter stories after the death branching off from an earlier action. For example, if the protagonist as an imperial soldier intervened in an injustice by another soldier, a young observer might be moved to recognize that the imperial soldiers are not just bullies and later prevent an uprising (which might incidentally have diverted troops from guarding a border at a very critical time as covered in the main story). Such can act as a kind of extended eulogy or memorial offering, so even a reader focused on the protagonist may appreciate such side stories.

Alternatively, the narrative order may deviate from the temporal order. This includes flashbacks as mentioned in clockwork's answer but even an inverted order could be used where successive narrative sections are set earlier in the protagonist's life. For example, a novel could begin with the funeral and immediate impact of the protagonist's death, proceed to shortly before his death (showing a part of why he was mourned as he was) and show his last words to his wife, then show how the couple came to love each other so, then show how the conflict which proved their love developed, etc., each section ending with a link to a previous time. A fully reversed order would be challenging to write well, but such is an extreme of the temporal reorderings possible.

Another possibility, mentioned in Lauren Ipsen's answer, is that the death is not complete or permanent. This can be a very dangerous method since the reader can easily feel cheated (tricked with inadequate benefit) and lose some degree of suspension of disbelief. This can also make death seem less final and the risk of death less serious. If risk of death is not a common component of the story, it becoming less serious will have limited impact. If the survival reinforces the nature of the protagonist (e.g., tough to kill or crazy prepared), the protagonist's relationship with others (e.g., rescued by insignificant (and so unnoticed) beings, spared by a villain for better sport, rescued by a villain's henchman), or the protagonist's destiny (protected by fate), then this can strengthen the story.

I would also qualify the statement in clockwork's answer that "it has to mean something and it has to be their purpose". There are several ways that a relatively meaningless death can have meaning in the context of the story. Obviously, for a dark tale, pointlessness may be the point. While such may not be popular, it can provide a meaningful story and press the reader to consider the philosophical question of what is the ultimate purpose of life.

Alternatively, the author can hint, possibly even heavily, at a less obvious meaning to the protagonist's death. Subtle hints may even allow various readers to insert their own meanings. One way to hint at such meaning is for the protagonist to have been significantly influenced by a similarly meaningless death; the meaninglessness of the death then becomes part of the protagonist's legacy.

A meaningless death can also be used to display the character of the protagonist (e.g., displaying a sense of humor even in tragedy or raging against the dishonor of dying in bed of amoebic dysentery) and of those close to the protagonist. The effect of the death on others can be reveal how the protagonist impacted their lives. Do they focus on the pointless death or the rich life? Do they fall to despair or find new courage as they try to honor the memory of the protagonist?

Finally, as has been pointed out in other answers, even if the reader has a strong favorable attachment to the protagonist, it is possible to transfer the mantle of significance to one or more other characters after the protagonist's death. This may be most easily done if there is a common cause championed by the protagonist such that the protagonist's death is largely a passing of the baton. However, if other characters are well-developed before the death, they may naturally fill the significance vacuum, especially if their initial actions are significantly informed by the protagonist's life and loss (not just taking up slack and mourning but also discovering how significant the protagonist was to them).

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    I like the fact that this answer elaborates about the meaning of 'meaningful' death. (Esp. the fact that the meaninglessness of someone's death can be the most meaningful statement in a dark tale) – ZeroStatic Sep 11 '14 at 10:14
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Make sure you have introduced another character to take his place, and that at that point the reader has already developed some connection with it. From that point forward, work to intensify the connection between them.

  • Except Martin fails rather horribly at the "make sure ... the reader has already developed some connection" part. Well, OK, so Martin fails horribly at a lot of other things, too, like consistency of characterization (his characters don't grow and change with time, they get personality transplants as and when the plot demands it), wrapping up plotlines (he literally doesn't resolve any of the plotlines in the first book, because the first book is just a way for him to get you to buy the second book, and so forth)... Yes, I do indeed despise the guy's writing, why do you ask? – Martha Oct 19 '17 at 0:06
  • I was pretty invested in Arya and Jon and Tyrion and Danny. My problem comes in when he later focuses on entirely new characters like the Ironborn, Dorne and random one off characters. – Lichtbringer Dec 12 '18 at 13:10
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There are a number of instances of this being done well in both book and film. However there are also a number of instances of it being done badly - so you are right to be cautious.

Some examples where it does work:

Film: American Beauty

The film actually starts with the protagonist narrating that this is the year he dies, and the film does end with his death. The question is how and why he dies not whether it happens and the question as to how he is narrating is never addressed.

Book & Film: The Lovely Bones

Starts with the narrator being murdered. The rest is shown from her perspective watching what happens afterwards from the afterlife.

Books: A lot of David Gemmell's books

A running theme through his books is sacrifice and redemption. One of his books has the main group of "heroes" being called the "Ghosts Yet To Be" for the entire novel, with very good reason.

The main protagonist of David Gemell's first book (Legend) dies at the end of the book yet this is still his most famous novel and launched his entire writing career.

Reading/watching these and other similar works where the protagonist dies will let you see for yourself how it can be done, how it can work, and how it makes you feel.

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The reader needs to like the protagonist and want him to win, otherwise he will stop reading. Therefore, I am unsure about killing off the protagonist. This is not because I like the character too much, but because the reader might stop reading.

No. Your level of storytelling ability determines whether the readers stop reading. I often read short horror stories with unlikable protagonists. If you create interesting ideas and characters that appeal to your readers (note that "like" is not the same thing as "appeal to"), they will continue reading. I have put down many books with likable protagonists because they were just generally awful stories (technically speaking as well as plot-wise).

Likewise, wanting a protagonist to win is totally independent of whether the protagonist dies. If you are afraid that readers will put down your book because the protagonist dies, you are over thinking things.

The only place I could see the hero dying without catastrophic results would be at the very end of the book. [..] However, the problem still remains that the reader will doubtless be displeased.

If your character dies anywhere but (roughly) the end, you don't have a story. Literally. If the protagonist begins the story dead, then it is a flashback (someone else is telling the story) or they are speaking from beyond the grave (no explanations necessary, except perhaps they are somewhere else now).

If you create any character that is likable, the reader will be displeased at their death. The important thing is to make it worth the readers while. They will hate you for making death too much like real life (i.e. generally meaningless).

So is it advisable to kill the protagonist?

Is it advisable? No. Not unless they really deserve it or it's an integral part of the story (even if to show how much of an impact the protagonist had on other characters). If you do do it, then you will have to consider carefully the how's and why's to make sure the reader understands that you aren't simply doing it for shock value or to simply create a depressing story.

How can you [kill a protagonist] without alienating the reader?

By telling such a good story in the meantime that the reader hardly cares the protagonist dies. The only hard and fast rule in my opinion is that the death should make sense within the arc of the story -- that given the plot line, it is a logical and reasonable event within the scope of what you have laid out in your story universe.

Two Final Points

First, in real life, most people stay very much alive for long periods of time. So killing a protagonist is similarly limited in most kinds of reading material, just because it's a more accurate representation of what happens to most people (at least till they get too old).

Second, killing unlikeable characters often creates joy and killing likable characters will create a depressing atmosphere. Readers are generally fine with the first and not so fine with the second. If too many of your books are depressing, readers will likely be hesitant to adopt them because of this, even if they are excellent stories. Many people read books to escape unhappy lives and reminding them that things suck in print isn't always a way to win hearts. So use unhappy stuff sparingly.

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Not an answer, just some additions to the existing answers.

@karlphillip: "Make sure you have introduced another character to take his place [...]."

Obviously you can easily kill one character in an ensemble cast. If you have a team of heroes, all except one can die. One from the team must fulfill the task, the rest are expendable. Because you don't have a protagonist.

If you have a protagonist – and protagonist, in Greek, literally means the one single central and primary figure, with every other character being secondary (Deuteragonist) or tertiary (Tritagonist) to him – and if you understand death to be the end of life and not the beginning of afterlife or zombiehood, of course the story ends with his death. A story that casts death as permanent and final, ends with the death of the protagonist. All that can come after it is an epilogue.

Certainly you don't have to narrate the story chronologically, and there are novels that begin with the protagonist's death and are all flashbacks, but the story still ends with his death. (We, as writers, should not confuse the terms "novel", "story", "narration", and "plot".)

@clockwork: "[...] plenty of readers are quite satisfied with that."

Novels are not about a protagonist surviving, but about satisfying the reader. A story can end with the hero attaining his goal, or with him failing his task. A story can have a happy end, or an unhappy end. A story can end with the lovers living happily ever after, or with the protagonist dying. The question is not what happens, but if what happens follows from what the protagonist did in a way that it satisfies the reader.

In a simple high concept plot, the hero gets what he deserves. If he learns and grows, he is rewarded. If he fails to change, he fails. Death, in terms of narrative, is failure (unless you tell the protagonist's whole life and death is the natural closure to a life lived to the fullest). In a postmodern plot, the hero is exposed to the randomness of life, and death is just a thing that happens. Having the hero get hit by a car just after he finally found the courage to approach the woman he has yearned for his whole life – and she happily accepted his advances – is what sometimes happens. It will satisfy the reader (of this type of novel) because he expects it to be cynical and random.

Make sure you understand what kind of novel you are writing.

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I don't think it's right to ask if it's advisable. From the tone of your question it seems you're asking whether it would be too harmful to kill your protagonist. So it's more of a binary "yes" or "no" question than a question of if it is a recommended practice.

Based on the research and other answers, the short answer is: Yes, if there is anything else to the novel apart from your protagonist. Otherwise, no.

I'd say the former is much more common so it would only be rare writing styles that are very specific to the protagonist, mostly excerpts from their diary for example or letters they've been sending. There will be some cases where these can still be continued as well so it's still simple enough to continue the story without them.

Situations where the character has friends, family, a goal and these concepts have been mentioned throughout the novel, I see no problem with having the protagonist die. Just by doing so you enrich your supporting characters back-story that little bit more by having them experience the loss as well.

As discussed above, various recommended ways to continue:

Narrating from beyond the grave A companion takes up the fight Time passes and someone investigates the death or a next of kin takes up the story

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Quite simply, it is impossible to kill off the protagonist before the end of the story.

Killing off your main character is absolutely possible, but the protagonist you can not. The story is ultimately the protagonists struggle. If you kill him at the beginning then the book is flashbacks, you still killed him at the end of the Story. Your only telling the story out of order. I know a lot of people are pointing out George R.R. Martin, i'll argue with you that as an epic fantasy his protagonist is his world as a whole. That's why he can arbitrarily kill off characters. Or

Bran is the protagonist, and he is present for every scene by his connecting to the trees.

In short, no your protagonist is impossible to kill off before the end of the story. If the story continues then by definition they were not the protagonist just a main/major character. Like killing off Sherlock Holmes without Watson, Watson's the protagonist, Sherlock is the main character.

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    I'm not sure how you can say this is "impossible" when there are half a dozen answers here (and I've linked to two related questions) giving explicit examples of how it is possible. – Lauren Ipsum Jan 25 '15 at 16:46
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I'm also an aspiring writer, and am working on a TV series. I want to kill my main character too, the protagonist. I want to do this because I want my style to be more realistic and believable, not all planned out and outlined like most fiction. In real life does the protagonist live forever, let alone win? No. In reality heroes die. All the time. Every day, in fact. Reality doesn't follow a certain set of rules and formulas. Things out of our control and that we don't expect happen. Things don't always happen the way we want them to. But in fiction they have to! I say screw that. Make it modeled after reality, not a plot or structure someone came up with that rarely or never happens in the real world. That's just my opinion.

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    The protagonist has to survive in fiction for a very simple reason: the reader is reading about him. If you kill him, the reader won't care nearly as much about the secondary characters, or whoever takes his place. Unless you kill your protagonist at the very end, his death will only drive readers (and in your case, viewers) away. – Thomas Myron Jul 24 '15 at 2:25
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If it works, of course you can do it. It isn't the most common thing that happens in novels, but I've seen it before, although that was in an anime.

However, there should be a good reason for killing the protagonist, and it should do something good for the story. If you kill off your protagonist without explaining what it resolves, then your reader probably won't see the point in the death. They have followed this character through the story and they'll hate to see him/her die at the end, but their pain will ease if you provide insight into why it happened and the good it did for the world.

SPOILERS ALERT

In 'Harry Potter', Harry discovers he is a Horcrux and must die in order to fully defeat Voldemort. Hence, he sacrifices himself, yet is able to return to life to finish what he started. And in the anime I mentioned above, the main character made himself hated, then planned his death to unite the world. Just two examples of killing off the protagonist.

Thanks a lot, Code Geass.

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If the character's death is at the end of the story, then a good way to finish the story is to have the rest of the characters make one final push to complete the goal, spurred on by the death of the hero. A good example of this is in (spoiler because it's a great movie and I don't want to ruin the ending for anyone):

The Lego Movie

In this movie, when the main character (seemingly) dies, the rest of the characters take up the cause and almost defeat the villain with only the hero's inspirational power by using the help of the general populace. It's one of the most emotional and impactful moments of the entire film. This technique should be transferable to a book, as long as some secondary characters have been fleshed out enough.

tl;dr Always keep a backup; also, martyrdom

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