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Right now I'm writing a novel in which I use the changing perspectives of two main characters with limited information each to slowly unveil the whole plot to the reader. Both use the past tense and first person (i.e. "When I woke up that morning, rain was pouring down the sky"), as if they were telling pieces of the story after they've experienced it themselves. This concept in itself works quite nicely from a narrative standpoint in my opinion.

I do have a problem, though: One of the two personal narrators needs to die throughout the course of the story.

Now, this leads to a kind of inconsistent situation: If he was dead, he wouldn't be able to tell the story of what happened up to this point afterwards. It destroys the illusion of actually getting the story told by himself.

My question is, now: Is this bad style? Do readers care about something like this or does it fall under "suspension of disbelief"? If it's a problem, what can I do to fix that?

Edit: To add a bit more context: Main character 1 gets killed by main character 2. She doesn't want to kill him, but does it anyways because she's pretending to be part of the "evil state" both were fighting before to smash it from within. He dies thinking that she's bad person, has only taken advantage of him and is cooperating with the state both hated intensely before to save her own life. She has to live with the moral burden of having killed him. I therefore think having him die is a very strong story element and I'd really like to keep it.

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    Welcome to Writing.SE, DLCom! Here's a link to our tour and help center pages, they're always useful. I can think of one example, I won't mention the name because it's a major spoiler, the first-person narrator of the series dies, then continues narrating through a stint as a ghost, then comes back to life. I take it this solution wouldn't fit your setting at all? – Galastel Jul 30 at 22:43
  • Hi, thanks for your comment. It unfortunately indeed doesn't fit my scenario at all. It's a dystopian novel (I wouldn't exactly call it "Sci-Fi", as technology doesn't play that much of a role), so ghosts or resurrection of people would really be out of place :D – DLCom Jul 30 at 22:47
  • I hope you change your narrator after that! – David Jul 31 at 11:23
  • In Worm (parahumans.wordpress.com), apparently 1/3 through (Leviathan), the author threw dice for the characters, and fully expected the first-person narrator to die, and the focus would shift to another. But the seemingly-immortal guy got really bad dice, and the fragile-seeming narrator pulled through. – April Jul 31 at 13:48
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    You have two first-person narrations that are interlaced? I think killing one of the narrators may be a relief for the reader. – Alexander Jul 31 at 16:59
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If you're internally consistent this can work.

A variety of books are first person, or a third person style that shows the character's thoughts enough that it has the intimacy of first person, but the character doesn't survive the book (or series).

There are countless examples. I just finished a trilogy told in first person, past tense, where the main character dies then is later resurrected.

Major spoiler:

The Binti trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor.

While she's dead, the narrator shifts to third person. Later, it shifts back. These alternate narrator sections are set off in their own chapters (aside from a single first person line at the very end to indicate the main character has returned).

It's not necessary for a character that dies to only use present tense. Past tense is a technique that most of us use when explaining things. It doesn't matter if the events occurred 20 years or 20 seconds ago. Or even if the character's last line is something like: "Her hand twitched and I saw a flash."

Since you're not using ghosts or necromancy, the character's story must stop no later than the moment of death. And you can not tell the story from the framework of the future (like a elder telling his grandchildren about the time he fought the evil people).

These things are not the same as using past tense as a narrative device. Allow your character to die and for his story to stop. Anything to do with him will need to be narrated by someone else.

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I think you are right to be leery of this approach because readers (based on my own experience and preferences, at least) will be disdainful of it unless handled very well, which to me means the following:

Let it serve the story you are telling.

If the convention doesn't work with your plot, your characters, or your themes, or even the pacing or balance of the story, something has to give. If you like the effect of the narration enough, consider changing a different element to make them compatible. But remember that sometimes you have to kill your darlings, and losing the first person POV might be it.

Your options may include:

  • Finding ways to keep that character's life, though past, important to the story and the resolution of the conflict. Perhaps they hid a crucial resource, or the other protagonist only prevails because of some aspect of the relationship they shared. There could even be (for a cliché trope) an eleventh-hour note delivered to the surviving protagonist, in the first person voice of the dead protagonist (or other device), which would reinforce that this character has been a protagonist throughout.
  • Using the two perspectives to build strong dramatic irony when the protagonists know or believe different things very important to resolving the story's central conflict, but they lose the chance to resolve that disparity when one dies.
  • Balancing the loss of the dead protagonist with a new first person protagonist, such as the PI investigating the murder, or the driver guilty of manslaughter who spends the rest of the story trying to atone. This will let you maintain an alternating POV format, if that's what you've established.
  • Providing an in-story reason for supplying the dead protagonist's perspective; perhaps the protagonist is telling the story at that "life flashing before their eyes" moment, or one of your surviving characters is writing a biography or fictionalized/mythologized version of their life, or:
  • Providing an in-story twist explaining the inclusion of the dead protagonist's perspective, such as the other protagonist is schizophrenic and dreamed up the other protagonist, and killing them off may be symbolic or a turning point in their mental health/other journey. This need not be fully resolved; it could be ambiguous, or only revealed as a possibility at the end.
  • Revealing toward the end that these are two different timelines and the two protagonists are the same person.

Make it count.

This is your Psycho twist. It's a major break in convention, so only do it if it will rock the socks off your reader. Set up a meaningful death with the right mix of foreshadowing, shock and/or inevitability, and emotional gravitas for your story and your other protagonist, or the characters that care about your unlucky stiff. Avoid apparently convenient and cliché justifications for the death (and/or format). A death that in-world is arbitrary or random or wasteful may be okay, but it sure as heck better mean something to the reader.

Your story will be memorable because of the unusual format, so make sure it's remembered for being good rather than gimmicky.


All that said, there are plenty of books where the death of the protagonist, even the first-person narrator, does serve well. The most memorable one I've read recently was The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, which is narrated by Patroclus (whose death was arguably the most important death in the entire Trojan War). It's handled a bit differently in that he continues to narrate

as long as his shade haunts the earth.

  • I can think of one book we read in my book club which took option 3. It wasn't strictly first person, but we had access to the thoughts of the protagonist and no-one else. The protagonist committed suicide half-way through the book and the perspective switched to the second main character. – Peter Taylor Jul 31 at 13:46
  • So to add a bit more context: Main character 1 gets killed by main character 2. She doesn't want to kill him, but does it anyways because she's pretending to be part of the "evil state" both were fighting before to smash it from within. He dies thinking that she's bad person, has only taken advantage of him and is cooperating with the state both hated intensely before to save her own life. She has to live with the moral burden of having killed him. Is this enough of a "counting" death? – DLCom Jul 31 at 16:13
  • @DLCom, it sounds promising! Strong dramatic irony can be so delicious. I hope it pays off for her in the end. – wordsworth Jul 31 at 18:39
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The creator of the Dead Narrators book list (spoiler warning) on Good Reads doesn't seem to have a problem with it:

Perhaps one of my all-time favorite movies is Sunset Boulevard which opens with a voice-over by a dead narrator. And I've enjoyed several books with that device. Anyone want to add any that I've missed?

Many of these became bestsellers. And I'm sure I've encountered other books or movies where a major plot twist was "haha I'm dead, bet you didn't expect that". Just another form of the "unreliable narrator" trope that you probably couldn't get away with in genre fiction but more literary-minded readers seem willing to accept with good humour.

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Sometimes first-person POV is conceptualized as a story being told, by the character, to someone. Many first-person narratives are framed as diaries, or stories being recounted later, or something along those lines. If this is how you are presenting your narrative, you'll want to respect that, which means that the narrative (of that character) will need to be completed prior to the final scene in which the character appears.

With that said, not every first-person narrative is framed this way. Sometimes the reader is just a disembodied entity floating along inside the narrator's consciousness. This is a bit less realist --but all art is artifice anyway. In this second case, you just carry through the narrative to the last moments, and close it when the narrator dies.

Many narratives are ambiguous --we tend to assume the first case unless we are forced into the second interpretation. If that happens, and the story is strong enough, I think the reader will be forgiving. I can think of two examples I've encountered: In Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh, the book closes with the narrator's death --you briefly question how it is you've accessed his narrative, but given it happens at the very end of the story, it's easy to overlook. (He's a bit of a hybrid narrator anyway, since he serves in portions of the book like a third-person omniscient narrator for events he hasn't personally witnessed.) Similarly, the film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is based on the main character's autobiography, but extends beyond it long enough to depict his death. Again there's a brief moment of disorientation, but as it comes at the end, it's something that can be accepted relatively easily.

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