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?

  • 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 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 at 15:13

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.

  • 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 at 14:47

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