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Back in highschool in the 90s we had an assignment to write an extra chapter for a book. After some discussion the teacher told us that under no circumstances can we kill the protagonist as the book was being told in first person and therefore the protagonist must survive to now be telling us the story.

Is this a way modern readers think? Do most people feel safe reading a work thinking that the protagonist will not die, not even on the last sentence of the book?

I remember Kickass specifically addresses this, reminding the viewer that he might be telling this story from heaven. Is this something that the reader has to be told to not feel safe? Has this trope been done enough now that the narrator is in danger?

Also does the tense of the work matter? Does putting a story in present tense make the narrator more logical to die as he is telling the story now, and not having survived after the fact?

To make it clear, I am not asking if I am allowed to kill the narrator without betraying the reader. I am asking if first person reduces tension.

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    I wouldn't say that it reduces tension. I had to write a narrative in English class last year and it was written in the first person. But my main character dies in the middle of the story and his daughter takes over the story. It doesn't have to be like the traditional way at all. (btw, I got an A on the assignment) – Aspen the Artist and Author Oct 31 '17 at 20:54
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    The movie American Beauty subverts this idea. – Todd Wilcox Oct 31 '17 at 23:56
  • Another work that subverts this (spoiler alert) is the finale of the Dexter series by Jeff Lindsay, entitled (duh) Dexter is Dead. – Deepak Nov 1 '17 at 3:50
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    Even if your premise were correct, it wouldn't really preclude ending with the first-person narrator in a situation where impending death is certain. – R.. Nov 1 '17 at 4:08
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    Apparently your teacher didn't approve of the idea of narration from the afterlife. I mean, I personally don't believe in the afterlife, but I'm not against the idea of using it as a device in writing. – Arthur Nov 1 '17 at 8:19
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Well, logically speaking, if it's first person, if you kill the narrator, it would be hard for the story to continue unless you change the perspective to someone new. Which.. defeats the purpose of first person in my opinion. Stories are told pass tense, which means that the person has to survive in order to tell the tale. They aren't usually written in the present. You could put some twist to it that at the end this person dies and the narration is from the person telling the story on their death bed or the likes...

Reflecting on all the stories/movies I have enjoyed, I don't recall a point where the narrator died when they played an active role in the story. Two that come to the top of my head currently... 300... the narrator was one of the warriors who was the only one to survive and was sent back to Sparta. Ends with him finishing the tale on the precipice of battle with a full army at his back.

We have sandlot... who told the story through the eyes of Smalls and ends with him in current day being a sports caster observing Benny steal home.

Even the Hobbit, was told of Bilbo recalling his tale of his journey, having the trilogy begin and end with him in modern day. Lord of the rings, was a story narrated from Frodo's perspective and end with him handing his writing to Sam before sailing.

So I would say yes, the narrator must survive to tell the tale. The only way I could see you writing the narrator die is if you pull something like in the titanic... The story was told from Rose's perspective. Ending with her in modern day/present day after having finished her story and poetically dying on the waters above where the Titanic sank.

EDIT: In response to your edit of the question, my answer is no, knowing the person narrating is going to live or die does not take away from the thrill of the story. The thrill is in the journey itself as I commented on Mark's post.

I go on a vacation, and I tell my friends about the white water rapids trip I took where the water threw me around narrowly dodging rocks, hitting a wave and being tossed out of the raft! GASP THEN! I was tumbling under the water in the current gasping for air as my head came above the choppy water every so often! TO MAKE IT WORSE! There was a fork in the river where one path took me towards a water fall and I had no way of controlling myself! Before I knew it my back smacked into a rock holding me in place in the river. I managed to grab onto a tree root and pull myself to safety and wait for my friends to come get me. That my friends is how I ended up all bruised and with a broken rib.

Obviously here in this made up vacation... we know the person is going to live.. they are telling it to our face! But it's the suspense and excitement that keeps you listening as they recall the story of how they nearly died and came home in a body cast. You are invested in it because hopefully this person is a friend you care about!

Point being, make your character where the audience is invested in them! Whether they die or not won't make people care about them if they aren't invested. A good character with a good story will make people invested and enjoy the thrill. Even if they know this person will live or die.

To further add, there has been several anime where it was pretty obvious from episode 1 that said character would die at the end. Even when you knew it was coming, that didn't change the fact that someone decided to chop onions on the last episode and make my eyes water. You are bonded to the story, to the characters and their tale is entertaining enough that even when you know the outcome, it still emotionally moves you.

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    American Beauty comes to mind, but the idea of the death of the narrator is stated in the first sentence – Andrey Oct 31 '17 at 18:11
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    @Andrey edited my answer based on your edit. – ggiaquin16 Oct 31 '17 at 18:25
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I suspect that most reader expect the narrator is not going to die. But you should not look on the device of the involved narrator as requiring the maintenance of strict logic about when the story was written down.

Using an involved narrator is a literary device. It is not intended to imply that the narrator at some point after the end of the story sat down at a keyboard and started typing. In most cases it is just a storytelling device, and you should not take it as anything other than that.

There are cases, of course, in which we are explicitly told that the story we are reading is a manuscript written by the person the tale it told to. This kind of "found manuscript" story was quite popular in 19th century adventure novels.

For an example, look at Kipling's story The Man Who Would be King. It is related by the author (as in the text tells you that this is the author speaking) and tells how he was visited by the protagonist both before and after his adventure, and how the protagonist told the tale on his second visit.

But this too is a device, a kind of frame that allows the author to introduce additional information. There is no need at all to allow for the possibility of the narrator actually writing down the story at any point. That would make no sense for many novels that use this technique. If your involved narrator dies, no reasonable or sophisticated reader is going to say, "wait, this is implausible, if he died when did he tell this story?"

  • Good point... at least from a 3rd person perspective. I just find it really hard to think that a first person narrator dying mid story would be appealing. It would be too hard of a switch to then get into the mind of someone else after spending the whole story from one view. Of course this is my humble opinion and I very well could be in the minority. – ggiaquin16 Oct 31 '17 at 18:06
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    @ggiaquin you don't have to switch. The narrator can just say "and then I died" and continuing to narrate in third person – Andrey Oct 31 '17 at 18:08
  • I understand that it's possible, and I am the writer and can do anything. In this specific case I have no intention in killing the narrator, I just want to know if first person takes the thrill out of the action as the reader goes :"oh it's the narrator, he will be fine" – Andrey Oct 31 '17 at 18:10
  • @ggiaquin, well there are certainly cases of novels that change narrators, sometimes more than one. Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury is told by several different narrators. Bleak House switches back and forth between two, as does No Country for Old Men. It might not be common, but it is not so exotic that you need to avoid it if it makes the story work. – user16226 Oct 31 '17 at 18:10
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    @AndreyIn the vast majority of novels we know from the start if the hero is going to die or not (usually not). Will the hero survive is not the greatest source of tension in a story. All stories are fundamentally moral, and the greatest source of tension is, will the hero make the right choice. The right choice may involve the hero's death, which would make that death a good thing (that is, a satisfying resolution). Mere physical peril is of little consequence by itself. Its role is to introduce moral peril. – user16226 Oct 31 '17 at 18:13
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While I think in general it's best NOT to kill a first-person narrator, there are many examples of stories where the narrator is dead or dies. Some examples:

  • The Lovely Bones
  • Murther and Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies
  • King Leary by Paul Quarrington
  • Statesman, by Piers Anthony
  • Sunset Boulevard by Billy Wilder
  • All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

I'm willing to bet there are LOADS of them out there; I found the list above by Googling "First person novels where the narrator dies at the end." They came from this forum post:

http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=331123

EDIT based on the edit to the question:

No, I think the success of the books cited above is indicative that, even if the reader isn't surprised by the death of the narrator, tension need not be broken.

Good storytelling can be achieved with any device at hand. It really depends on us, as writers, to build the tension in other situations and relationships in the story. As pointed out by @MarkBaker in a comment, whether the narrator survives the story or not isn't necessarily the source of tension for the story.

And, I STILL hope that helps some. :)

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When reading, I generally assume that a first person narrator likely won't die unless, as in the examples provided in previous responses, it is announced or explained early on in the story.

However, this doesn't mean there's no tension. There are other stakes beyond life vs. death to consider.

I also think it is worth noting that the majority of first-person-narrated books have been written in the past tense. That is, with expressions such as "I saw," "I did," "he looked at me," etc. This type of structure strongly implies to me that the narrator is recounting the story, and thus that they have survived its events to do so. But as you've said there are some first-person stories told in the present tense -- "I see," "I do," "he looks at me," etc. Think of the Hunger Games and Divergent series. First person in the present tense makes it seem much more likely to me as a reader that the narrator might not survive to recount the story because its not really necessary logically. The plot could even continue if a new first person, or even third person narrator took over where the original one left things.

In my opinion as a reader, first person does not reduce tension if properly executed, and the tense does matter. If your story involves life-or-death stakes, I would choose to narrate in the present. But, there are many other kinds of tension than forcing the reader to ask will they die? -- even a first-person-past narrator may be recounting the story from a different country, decades later with a new family, or from a hospital bed, dictating their life story at the last opportunity they'll ever have. If it's a more personal, character-driven story than an epic adventure of numerous perils, narrating in the past might actually maintain more tension -- They're going to pull through this mess somehow, surely, but how on earth will they ever get their life back together? Will they be the same person on the other side?

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I would say I specialize myself in first person short stories narrated in past tense where the narrator abruptly dies at the end. It's kind of specific, but oh well.

In my experience, most people don't expect this, although I am not sure if it is because of the narration style or because death comes to the narrator without foreshadowing. Another factor could be that my narrator is usually the protagonist, and people don't tend to expect the death of the main character because we are generally used to happy endings.

Logic would tell us that if it is being narrated in past tense, and not part of an "episodic" narration (think a journal), the narrator managed to survive to tell us their story, but there are three possible exceptions: the narrator is narrating just before expiring, in a surprisingly lucid last instant where time stops and they get to analyze the events that led to their demise; the narrator shifts to present tense right before the end, as if the story was one big flashback; or the narrator is indeed narrating their story post-mortem, whether it explicitly alludes to afterlife or not. I have written stories in the first and second cases, and the one I wrote using the first style is one of my favourites.

Tension almost always will arise not from the protagonist's life being at a stake, but from anything else. People often expect happy endings where the protagonist gets to live, unless we are clearly writing a tragedy or a horror story. Nobody expects the action hero to die, so you can use this to your advantage and let the reader get their guards down for the grand cruel finale.

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