Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Character Assassination

Ever killed off a main character? 

I think the death of a main character, particularly the hero (and usually the POV character) is interesting. You don't see it happen very often, which might be something to do with publishers feeling that it's not a suitable ending, or maybe it's something that readers don't like. Which is odd, since, come on, it's how we all end, isn't it? 


Recently, television has done this so, so well. Breaking Bad, anyone? But I can't actually remember the last story I read where the main character died. It happened a fair bit in the classics, but not so much anymore. I wonder why that is. Do modern readers find the death of a main character unpalatable? Or do they feel cheated after investing so much time in a character's journey only to have it end in death? 

For me, sometimes it feels too easy when a character survives. Too unrealistic. With all those things going against them, sometimes with an entire apocalypse bearing down on then, the hero still gets out okay. All the damage is collateral  And sure, we don't read fiction for realism, do we? But when the stakes are so high, sometimes I'd like to see things go against the main character. 

Speaking of collateral damage, supporting characters tend to get knocked down like skittles. Sometimes you can see it coming from a mile off. Wisecracking sidekick possibly nursing some sort of secret heartbreak? Shit. He's got a target painted on him, doesn't he? And I get that. It's because there has to be some price paid to the stakes in the story. But, for the hero, it's rarely the ultimate price, is it? 

In real life, death is too often random, arbitrary and largely meaningless. And I think we try and remedy this in fiction. I think fiction is the place we go when real life makes no sense. And that's important. Except sometimes I think it's equally important for fiction to surprise us, and shock us, and take us somewhere unexpected. 

What do you think? 


  1. You raise an interesting point. I don't know if it would upset me as a reader for the main character to die. I think it would have to depend on the writing. But I agree, sometimes it's a little over the top for the main character to go through unbelievable crises and dangers and survive it all, while some minor character gets done in.

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. I'm not actively planning on killing any main characters, but I want to keep my options open!

  2. I guess readers don't like to follow a character's journey only to see it end. We want to have hope for the future, don't we? Plus, you really nailed it on the head when you said that fiction is where we go when reality makes no sense. Everything has to make sense in books, even death.

    1. I think that might be it, JE. Fiction is where we want things to make more sense than in real life.

  3. It does feel somehow cheap when you're worried about a main character in a movie and yet then you think, "Well, no, they're the star, they're going to survive and even win and get the girl." But I have been surprised by some TV shows, where major players are taken out just halfway through a season.

    In novels, though, there's no contracts with actors or the need to keep an audience coming back all year long. Still, I can't think of many authors who do that. There has to be a sense of hope, that one can pull through, otherwise the reader might not come back for more.

    I was once really angry at one first-time author for killing off a major character. But it was hard to be angry for long, 'cause at the end of the book it said the author himself had died shortly after finishing the book. That's life, and it sucks, 'cause he was really good.

    1. I think that the difficulty arises when I'm looking at my motives. Do I want this character to live just because I like them? Or does the narrative demand they die?

      I agree that there has to be a sense of hope though. So often we don't get that in the real world, I think it's important to get it in fiction.



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