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I have a pretty simple question: Are there any studies/surveys that show the appropriate time to kill a main character earliest?

I am talking about studies among readers/viewers of books/movies/series in which at least one of the main characters die. So for example A Song of Ice and Fire.

Killing main characters makes a story a lot darker but killing one too early lessens the effect. For example the death of Eren's mother in Attack on Titan was way too early, I didn't feel anything. So first episode is too early, but when is the right moment that the audience has a emotional relationship with the character so that they are really sad (or happy depends of protagonist or antagonist) when the person dies.

  • Of course, such early killing may be too early for the particular purpose of generating an immediate emotional reaction in the reader from an emotional relationship with the character but can still be useful to present the nature of the world (or other characters) or even retrospectively to develop sorrow (through the grief and other effects of the death as well as revelation of the deceased character) or the satisfaction of justice (e.g., a leader who dies from starting a nuclear war in a story that begins after the death, initial in-story reaction may be just or unjust, hero or villain). – Paul A. Clayton May 17 '15 at 23:52
  • The purpose of killing Eren's mother was to set the atmosphere of the story. Making the kids orphans was also important plotwise. It could also have been used for character development, but AoT didn't really do that since there was so much other stuff going on. – Ville Niemi May 18 '15 at 11:40
  • @VilleNiemi But the way it is depicted (especially in the anime) this should be a very emotional scene... – Armin May 18 '15 at 11:52
  • With that situation and those characters? Sometimes the lack of emotional scene conveys the writers intention. TV has conditioned us to expect instant emotional gratification, but it is not always the best way to get the message to the reader. (Fair warning, haven't watched the anime which is probably different. Because... TV.) – Ville Niemi May 18 '15 at 12:09
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There are no studies that I'm aware so I'll give you my opinion which is, kill off the character when the time is right. As you've said, too early and your reader won't feel any emotion but too late and you won't have time to deal with the repurcussions of the death.

I myself have killed off someone I portrayed as a main character in the first chapter of a book as it saved me a lot of time later explaining why the real main character is like he is.

The late author James Herbert was an expert at making a character, giving them a back story then killing them all in the space of a single chapter. I distinctly remember in his book "The Fog" where a girl was sitting on the beach reflecting on the summer of love she'd had which had just ended. The whole thing was very detailed and led to her deciding she wanted to live but at that point, a whole load of infected had filled the beach and pushed her into the sea.

On TV, Star Trek: The Next Generation created Tasha Yar, the security chief, made her a central figure in several story lines then killed her half way through series one. This gave the viewer the belief that any main character could be killed because Tasha was a "main" character for so long.

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    I thought the actress of Tasha Yar got fired for reasons not related to work and scripts just had to deal with it. And no that is not the official version (unhappy with character development, released of contract, left on good terms), but in any case her departure was unplanned. But certainly the scriptwriters tried to use it as much as possible. – Ville Niemi May 18 '15 at 11:25
  • You are correct. I never knew that. – Stephen May 18 '15 at 11:43
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I don't know how you'd really do a study on this. It's far too subjective. One reader might say that he found the death of a certain character very emotional and he was crying so hard he couldn't continue reading, while another might read the same book, shrug and say, "Glad they got rid of that character. He just slowed down the story."

Yes, in general a writer should be careful not to spring dramatic moments too early, as the reader has not yet had a chance to get invested in the characters. I recall a book I read years ago, "The Ship Who Sang", which I think was generally an excellent book but I considered it flawed because the writer kept introducing characters, and then within a few pages that character would have some tragedy and the reader was clearly supposed to feel for him or her, but I didn't, because I'd only "known" this character for a couple of pages.

I'd worry less about killing a character (or introducing some other dramatic event) too late. Other than in the sense that any development in a story might come too early or too late: it doesn't fit the flow of the plot. If something happens too quickly, it can be abrupt, happening without adequate build-up to justify it. But if something takes too long, then the reader can be bored. Like, "Oh come on, obviously John is going to try to steal the money and disappear, get to it already."

But if someone could actually "study" this and come up with a formula, like "the ideal time to kill a main character is one-third of the way down page 183", well, at that point we wouldn't need human authors, we'd just program computers to write novels.

  • I didn't expect a formula as a result... I thought there was a study of different stories (or the same story told in different ways, like movie and book) and then comparing the reaction of the audience. I know this is very subjective, but probably it isn't. There are some who think it was to early, others feel very sad for a death in the first sentence. – Armin May 18 '15 at 15:56
  • In "The Ship Who Sang" the reader isn't intended to feel bad about the pilots. The book is about the ship, not its passengers. – Towell May 18 '15 at 16:48

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