6

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
2

Killing a character and killing the protagonist are two very different things.

The death of somebody close to a character is obviously life-changing and can set them on a new course. It is the death of Bruce Wayne's parents that motivates him to become Batman. Or the murder of Luke Skywalker's parents that induces him to follow Obi Wan and become a Jedi hero.

The death of a protagonist, on the other hand, is much different. Readers typically identify with the protagonist, so the death of the protagonist is seldom enjoyed by them. But it might be if the setup is that the protagonist is choosing death as the only way to accomplish something they care about more than their own life; saving their family, for example. Or saving the world or universe. Or even saving a single person they love.

If the reader is identifying with the protagonist, it can still be a happy ending if they feel like the protagonist died a heroic and honorable death to achieve their goal, if the protagonist died to uphold a high moral principle. Or they feel like the protagonist, by choosing death to achieve an objective, redeemed themselves for their past sins.

Otherwise, if the reader will not feel the protagonist died with honor and courage, you are writing a tragedy. If that is your goal (it has never been mine) then the death of the protagonist is either literal or Karmic punishment for a mortal sin, because they chose to do something (or many somethings) that harms an innocent, or many innocents. They are not dying heroes, but dying as villains. The story is a warning of what awaits the selfish, those who choose cowardice or comfort or self-reward over the welfare of the innocent and helpless. It is difficult to write a protagonist reader's care about and identify with that fits this bill, but these kinds of "good guy caught up in a slippery slope descent into evil" stories can be written.

It will not be considered a "good read" if you just randomly kill the protagonist, killing the protagonist takes a long time for the reader to feel like their own death (since they identify with the protagonist) was morally justified and the "right ending" of both the protagonist and the story.

1

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.

0

In the story Worm, there's a major catastrophic event. The author decided that 1/3 of characters had to die and rolled dice for each.

The main protagonist was not exempted. Some of the deaths were surprising and required introduction of new characters to take their place. There was even a plan to replace the main protagonist if she died.

I don't remember his reasoning, but here's what I got out of it:

  • Nobody has plot armor. This makes for much more thrilling writing and prevents deus ex machina.

  • The story can't be planned ahead too far. If you've read Worm, a lot of it fits together extremely well for a 1.6M word story. But this was not out of planning ala Tolkien but out of very in depth characters.

  • It's a way out of writer's block and keeps things fresh if you're tired of writing.

Note that you don't have to actually kill the protagonist. You just have to have a very real risk of it.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy