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When should a writer kill their protagonist off?

Inspired by a question about character lifetime and another about what makes the death of a character satisfying for the reader, I have begun to wonder whether there are clues inherent to a story I might be writing that would tell me whether my protagonist needs to die – or not.


If you consider answering this question, please keep in mind that we are Writing.SE. This question is not about how we might interpret the death of a character in literature, but about guidelines and conventions that might help us decide whether we should let a character die, or whether some other (positive or negative) outcome is more fitting to our stories.

  • How would those guidelines not be at least partially based on how the reader interprets the event? – Nicol Bolas May 4 '18 at 13:18
  • I think this needs to be focused on serial or non serial work – Andrey May 4 '18 at 13:45
  • @Andrey If you think that makes a difference, why not address that in your answer. It could be one of the "clues" I'm asking about. Limiting my question to one or the other will make it impossible to tell me how this distinction affects the decision. – user29032 May 4 '18 at 13:53
  • I interpret character deaths to be losses to the protagonist. We identify (often) with the protagonist and the way (s)he deals with loss helps us understand loss within our own lives. Seeing Obi Wan die was painful. Seeing Luke in pain at it - Yes. – DPT May 4 '18 at 14:45
  • At least related: writing.stackexchange.com/questions/12839/… – Yuuza May 6 '18 at 20:06
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I don’t understand why main protagonists are ever killed in serials or in series… Robin Hood; King Arthur, their tales are done but Sherlock Holmes can always be brought back by adding an earlier adventure… or when “with one bound, our hero was free”.

Otherwise, and assuming you’re not thinking of fresh victims in serial killings, isn’t it true that no character needs to die unless the story needs to be made to move on?

Whether it’s revenge, justice or something else, “… somebody must die for the death of my wife/father/brother” works only if my wife/father/brother first dies.

Any character can by contrast, usually achieve redemption or atonement for some failing, including a main protagonist. Similarly the acquisition of super-powers has come at a very high price since Prometheus and Icarus, Dracula and Frankenstein.

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