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I'm trying to plan a very long-form meta-story with multiple shifts in tone and scope, the first part of which consists of a very small-scale character story with an ensemble cast of 4 main characters. Right now I'm planning on only one of them being alive by the time the first part ends.

My main concern is that by giving each of the MCs an equal focus and not having any one be the 'main character', then killing off three out of four of them and switching the focus to the remaining one for the other parts of the story, it's kind of erasing the importance of the rest of the cast and making their lives, and consequently their characters mean nothing. To a certain extent, this is intentional, as the series explores themes of absurdity and existentialism and the shift from the first to the second part represents a major tonal shift from somewhat grey to something pretty black.

But I'm worried that I'm not thinking about this from the perspective of my audience. Is this definitely a bad idea, or is it the kind of thing that depends on how I handle it?

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    This kind of question immediately evokes "Game of Thrones" parallels. Sure you can do it, and sure some readers would be upset. But if you want your story to be "pretty black" - then paint it in black.
    – Alexander
    Apr 16, 2021 at 7:26
  • Actually, this made me think of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, where ALL the characters were dead at the end of the novel. If readers understand this is happening, they won't feel betrayed (okay, some will still). Go for it, but don't let your readers fall in love with the characters, or the story will leave a bitter taste in the mouth.
    – DWKraus
    Apr 16, 2021 at 15:13
  • You can create a good hook for the rest of the book, like "why did they die?" But it depends what story you're going to tell. As an extreme example, there are fictional retellings of murders where you get the victims alive, then they die, then the rest of the book is who did it or why. Or equally you can have a Battle Royale/Hunger Games style bloodbath, and then widen the vision to explore the society that creates this. But killing and forgetting is more problematic.
    – Stuart F
    Jan 20 at 10:06

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I would say that if your going for a "Not really the hero of the story" set up, you can only pull it once... maybe twice without repeating yourself (I'll give my example later). Doing it repeatedly, in the same story, will leave a bad taste. One of the points of an ensemble cast is that all characters have a purpose for inclusion and are well developed. When I think of ensembles, I think to most Star Trek or Power Rangers (and Super Sentai by proxy) or most Joss Whedon shows. An individual part of the story may focus on a character even though that might not be the designated "hero" character (An episode of TNG might focus on Data's struggles, even though Picard was the Captain and thus "Hero" of the show. An episode of Power Rangers might focus on a story where the Pink Ranger is the important character, even though both Power Rangers and Super Sentai put the Red Ranger as the hero (traditionally). And despite the show titled "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" one of the best episodes, "The Zeppo" is told from the point of view of Xander, who is having a parallel adventure with Zombie Frat Boys to what is clearly a very big apocalyptic crisis that the rest of the gang are dealing with in the background.).

That said, you can get away with this, by setting up core cast to seem important but only die. Buffy tried this twice, the first time being more a footnote. In televison, it's almost always assumed that characters in the credits will live through most of the season (getting credited in U.S. television generally comes with a contract to do so many episodes per season, typically at least a majority). However, for the two part pilot, Wheadon wanted to include in the credits an actor who was initially set up to be the friend turned foe, by getting turned into a vampire as revealed in the cliffhanger... and then killed off by the end of the plot in ep. 2. This was to highlight the style of the show which was very subversive of dramatic clichés and tropes associated with the teen horror genre. Wheadon was able to pull this off in season 6, when a nearly 3 season recurring actress and fan favorite, Amber Benson, was finally promoted to a title credit appearance... in the same episode that ended with her character's death after which she had left the show. The stunt was done so the surprise ending was masked from viewers and leeks, as her death began a major plotline that would carry the rest of the season and finally steeled that season's villain and plotline to head towards the conclusion.

Its certainly possible to do this... but don't do it three times... an ensemble works when the majority of the team win, not just the hero.

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  • Instead of killing off three individual characters, you might consider killing off all three in one tragic, unexpected incident, with the survivor left to deal with the aftermath--survivor's guilt and all.
    – RobJarvis
    May 17, 2021 at 14:47
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There's two main problems

One is related to the book's intended audience, and how you manage the "MC vacuum" these deaths will cause.

First of all, market your book properly. You don't want reader's looking for a feel-good story. They aren't going to get what they want. Lots of people try to find what makes certain choices work and what makes them fail; a lot of the times, the difference lies in the audience. Whether a story that involves e.g. meaningless death is good or not depends heavily on the audience; some readers have deeply-rooted philosophies that would find meaningless death wrong and contrived; impossible and thus a cheat. Other readers find such stories to be affirming of their nihilism, for example. For some readers however, it doesn't matter whether it aligns with their beliefs or not; they just like the exploration of ideas and they can handle a few gut-punches. Others however, despite their philosophical inclinations, or lack thereof, are simply too saddened by such plots that their enjoyment is drowned out by their sadness.

These are all causes of failure that can't be avoided through how you write. They are avoided through how you market your book. Make it clear that this is a dark book.

The second problem is one that exists regardless of readership. A story needs an MC. I'll talk about how to avoid an MC vacuum in terms of this idea I call the "MC factor". The MC factor is pretty much the degree of which the MC(s) fulfill their essential role. The MC factor consists of three sub-factors.

MC factor = The conductivity of your MC(s) X The number of MCs X The compellingness of the MC(s)

I do realize that the first subfactor is itself a subfactor of the last, but that just means this one matters in two ways (it's squared).

The characters of a story is the reader's conduit; they bring the reader into the story's world, their personality being the reader's body and their worldview being the reader's eyes. The higher the depth and breadth of your characters' development, the more points of relation your reader can have with them. The more relatable they become, the more the reader is able to imagine themselves within the story, increasing the immersion, which is essential to a story. So, an MC's conductivity consists of how relatable they are, and that relatability is mediated by their development.

Now, you may be thinking: development can introduce traits that are unrelatable as well. Yes, and that contributes to an MC compellingness. A reader arguing with a character in their head, seeing the word from other perspectives, etc., can be quite exciting and compelling. An MC's likeableness also contributes to how compelling they are. The amount of conflict they cause in the story also contributes, and so on.

And then there's the number of MCs. I mean, imagine you've got one MC that single-handedly gives you a nice MC factor. Then, you introduce another MC with an equally good MC factor; then you've just doubled the MC factor.

So, what's my point here? Well, everything is relative. One book may have a far lower MC factor than another, yet still do better because of other things. Upping your MC factor is of course always a good thing, but when it comes to MC factor, the worry for competent writers isn't have one that's too low. No, the worry lies in having one that drops too much. In other words, a book with an MC factor of three is better than a book that starts with an MC factor of 6, that drops to a 3 (the numbers are random here, there is no way to quantify this, I'm just using them to clearly show the concept).

If an MC factor drops, you get an MC vacuum; the reader will feel deprived of their enjoyment and place in the story. Killing off an MC, if handled improperly, will cause a drop in the MC factor. Killing off a ton of MCs, even more so. How do you handle such a thing then? Well, you've got to increase, and set-up the increase, of the other factors. When you kill an MC, that's going to cause a change like The number of MCs - 1. I am portraying this all very simplistically; here I'm assuimg all of the MCs are equal in all respects, which would then mean one could simply subtract one from the "number of" factor. That they're completely equal however, is unlikely. But bear with me, you can adjust it all to fit the facts that apply to the specific situation.

So, you've got to either add another MC to make up for the loss of one, or you've got to increase the conduciveness of your MC(s), or how compelling they are. You've go to do this at the right time as well. If you increase all of this a long time prior to killing off an MC, then you've just raised the MC factor, only to have it reduced again, giving more or less the same effect as if you had done nothing. If however, you introduce these increases very shortly before the death, and then you go full-force after the death, then you'll minimize the MC factor drop, having but a slight transition period of dipping down in MC factor and going up again.

The good thing is that a character death is always a good opportunity to develop characters, both due to the direct impact of the death on their development, and the indirect impacts, as the death is likely to cause events that then go on to increase development. So, I say, prepare for the death by upping these factors, and set-up future increases; then, when the deaths happen, milk them for all their worth. Make sure that this remaining MC reaches insane depths of character as a result of this.

So, to conclude, make sure you have an audience with the right stomach, and manage the MC vacuum your deaths will cause.

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