11 August, 2011

On The Death Of Important Characters: How Do You Feel About It?

You pick up a book.

You read for a while.

A major character dies.

It always bothers me when a character (particularly when it's the main character) dies in the end. And not only when the character's someone I'm fond of. Most of the time, I have to wonder: what is so great about their death? What spurred the author to kill off an influential person in the story?

Even if they do succeed in their goal, it often just seems too abrupt, violent, and saddening. Unless the death is handled well--when it comes to the main character--it's even come off as annoying, when it's there just for the sake of itself. There are many instances where I thought the book/story would've been improved without that plot twist.

What do you think? Can you think of any books where you thought the MC's death was a good thing for the story? Does it matter if it's one of the main supporting characters, rather than the main character who dies? Have you ever written the death of your MC in one of your novels? If not, would you ever consider it?

-----The Golden Eagle


Shelly said...

Well, there's always the afterlife.

linda said...

I'm not a fan of novels where the main character dies, so I don't think I could ever write one myself and inflict such an ending on other people!

Barbara Kloss said...

Yeah, I'm not a huge fan of killing off main characters. I understand some storylines might require "sacrifice", but I'm so emotionally invested (ps I'm still angry at Rowling for killin off Snape)...by that point all I feel is sad. I also don't really like tragedies.

Heather said...

That's a tough one. Of course it breaks my heart when characters I've come to love die in a book. However, I'm a firm believer that the story and the characters need to dictate what happens to them, not the authors. If that means their actions and decisions end with their death, then so be it.

Gracie said...

I think if you have to wonder what's so important about the death of the main character... then obviously it wasn't necessary and the author wasn't doing it right. I bet if you read about a death of a MC that made sense, then you wouldn't be wondering about it. :D

Budd said...

spoiler- Take I am Legend, that is a great example of how to do it. That was powerful and great.

Laila Knight said...

I can't stand it, especially if I've become involved with the character...there's a lot invested when you've followed a character in a series let alone a book. It really ruins the story for me, unless of course it happens to be the villain. :)

Deborah Walker said...

I was shocked when Lord Stark died in 'A Game of Thrones' it really moved the story along, and made his family's motivations all the more real. It was really well done.

Carrie Butler said...

I don't mind killing off someone close to the MC, but killing the MC himself (or herself) ~usually~ serves little purpose other than shock value. Great post! :)

Crystal Collier said...

The Matrix. Ah...

Actually, this is funny because I just got done with my 5th novel, and clear up until the end I was 100% sure I'd kill off this character. Well guess what? The book is done and he's still breathing. I've decided live characters are so much more interesting than dead ones.

Christine Rains said...

A MC's death can make for a powerful and great ending. It has to be done right, though. George R.R. Martin is a good example of someone who does it right. It's shocking, but it makes for an incredible story.

E.R. King said...

I think if the MC dying fits the plot, than so be it. But I dislike it when it's random and the MC doesn't die for a purpose. If bad things happen to your MC, even dying, it has to serve a purpose. No random plot lines!

Michael Offutt said...

I was sad when Charlotte in Charlotte's Web died but I know it happens to spiders.

Sarah McCabe said...

The death of the main character in the game of thrones made me hate GRRM forever.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Wow Golden,

This is an intriguing topic. I'm not too happy when the MC dies UNLESS it's a serial killer or some horrific beastly person. The YAY for the death.

I'm not sure if I would ever kill off my MC, but I might do so to another character if it adds to the story.

Sananora said...

I'm definitely not a fan of main characters dying, it really ruins my day :(

Tere Kirkland said...

Hmmm, I'm not afraid to kill someone off if it is a natural progression of the plot, or someone's self-sacrifice, or it's just the only solution. I've been known to kill someone when I'm in the sagging middle/writer's block stage. Usually works like a charm to get the action moving forward again. ;)

As a reader, if I'm upset that a character died, usually I eventually realize that the author did a good job making me care about the character. I'm still pissed about Sturm Brightblade. ;) But in the best possible way.

David Powers King said...

I don't know if I can knock off my protagonist, if that's what you mean, unless I found some way for them to cheat death (deathly hallows come to mind). Death if a part of life and can serve for great tension if done right.

Sarah Pearson said...

There would have to be a damn good reason to take out the MC, but you can kill off a sidekick :)

Old Kitty said...

I screamed when Gustav Flaubert killed Madame Bovary at the end! How could he!?! I was loving every bit of her and he goes and gives her arsenic and she dies a horrid death! LOL! Oh but it just had to happen cos she was a bad bad bad girl up to that point and racked up all that debt and had no way out of it! Wonderful!

So even if her death for me was most unfair, it was a good one and racked up the dramatic tension nicely! I'd not have it any other way!

Another one of course is the beautiful Tess D'Urbevilles of ahem, Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbevilles. Yes I know these are not modern books but oh they're classics and just sublime.

Take care

Clarissa Draper said...

I wrote a book, it's about ten people who were brought to an island and one by one all ten were killed off... what? Oh, apparently I didn't write it, Agatha Christie did but I don't like when everyone dies.

I've never killed off a main character but when they're being really hard to deal with, I've considered it. But, in general, no. Not unless it's SO VITAL TO THE PLOT.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Hate to spoil it for you (in case you haven't read it) but CassaStar had two main characters, and yes, one of them dies. I hated doing it, but it was his death that propels the other character forward. If the character had lived, my main character would've made different choices and the book's ending would've been different and anti-climatic. (Several people emailed me and said it was sad, but it fit the story.)

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

Actually, I had a hard time with a book where two of the secondary characters died--and they happened to be the only two characters I liked in the whole book.

I also hated the deaths in LORD OF THE FLIES, but I understood why they were necessary to the story.

In my own book, one of the main characters dies in the first sentence. Her story is told through flashbacks and diary entries.

In general, killing off a character is something that must be considered very carefully. Is it really necessary to the story?

Rusty Webb said...

One of the better books I read in the past few years had THE main character in the first person narrative die near the end. It was very powerful. For that reason alone I think it can be done.

Said book carried on withe the narrative told through what had been the secondary character, again, it was done masterfully.

laughingwolf said...

story is all...

characters come and go...

if some need to die to move the story to a logical conclusion, so be it

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

One of the greatest tragedies of all time is Romeo and Juliet, which takes out both main characters. But that is what the story is about--senseless waste of life because of stupid feuds. So it depends on the reason. It shouldn't be just to wring tears out of readers. I happen to love Tristan and Isolde, but his death serves the purpose of showing his internal fight between fealty/honor and passion/love.
I have never killed any of my MCs, only secondary characters and that hurt me plenty.

Nancy Thompson said...

I have 2 MCs and 2 supporting MCs who are so important that they are nearly straight MCs themselves. I killed both my supporting MCs off, one in the beginning and one near the end. One drives the story the other culminates it. It wouldn't have worked any other way. Both are the the events that change the male MC from good to bad back to good again.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I read one suspense series where one of the two main characters was killed off in around the fifth book. I think the author did it just so she could move the continuing story to a different local. I never read the author's work again.
As for Game of Thrones, if you've read the entire series so far, Ned Stark really wasn't the main character. The TV series might have made it seem so but he isn't. I hated seeing him die too but his death advanced the story.

Beth said...

Romeo and Juliet wouldn't be the same w/o the death....

Marlena Cassidy said...

If I feel like the MC died to create a gimmick or to create conversation, then I get annoyed. But if the MC has to die and it makes sense for him/her to do so, then I think that the story might be better for it. I remember reading a YA book a while back where one of the characters had cancer and died. Her journey through cancer was the main focus of the novel, and her death was a powerful way to end it. It wouldn't have been the same if she hadn't.

Rob-bear said...

I guess the question is, "What is the significance of the character's death?"

Memzie said...

I like what Heather, Gracie, and Budd had to say. I would agree with them.

I can't believe you (Of all people) haven't read Ender's Game. It is definitely your cup of tea and you have to read it!!!

LynNerd said...

I usually don't like it when the MC dies. I'm glad it doesn't happen often in the books I read.

Alleged Author said...

Stephen King kills MCs all the time, but he does it to advance his plot. Now when a courageous MC dies just for *effect*? That I have a problem with reading.

Brittany said...

I don't think I've read any books where the protagonist dies, just main characters.

I think when you're thinking about killing off any character, the character can't be so insignificant that no one cares (unless it's not a major part of the book), but they should be slightly less important than the protagonist, so it's kind of a balance. Obviously there are exceptions. It's not like you CAN'T kill off the protagonist, you just risk making your readers mad. And you can kill of insignificant characters as long as you're not going to make a huge deal of it.

Trisha said...

In a way, I think character deaths are good for the 'ups and downs' of the plot. They're necessary, even. But I can't remember a time being happy when a character died...well, except for nasty evil characters in books like the Wheel of Time. hehe

Main characters??? It really does bother me when those guys go...

anthony stemke said...

I don't like it when the main character gets killed, but if it's good for the story then I can accept it.

Jennifer Hillier said...

It's always heartbreaking when the MC dies, but sometimes the story needs it. Those tend to be books I never reread though, because if I already know they're going to die, I can't bring myself to experience it again.

Rachna Chhabria said...

I wrote a short story where my MC, a ten year old boy dies and becomes a ghost, my editor fainted and was really very upset that I could start a story with the death of the MC.

I wouldn't mind killing a supporting character, but not the MC.

....Petty Witter said...

I have to say that something other than a 'happy ending' can make a refreshing change. To kill off a much loved main character is a brave step but sometimes a necessary evil as I think authors can become too reliant on these characters and a breath of fresh air in the form of new characters is sometimes needed.

Phil Hall said...

In my story, the main character had to die to advance the plot....but don't worry, he got better! ;)

Sometimes, I think when I read a character's death, that the author just ran out of ideas.

Jules said...

The only time it bothers me is when the second book comes out and poof, they live!
Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

Reece said...

I'm okay with important characters dying if it actually improves the story somehow. That might happen by putting the MC in even more dire straights, but as long as it improves my reading experience, I'm okay with it.

Main characters are another thing all together. In general, I don't like authors killing off their main character at the end. My reasoning being that killing the MC kind of negates everything the character has learned over the course of the story. This isn't always true, of course, but it turns out that way more often than not. There are situations where the death of the MC is permissible, but they're few and far between (they must serve a crucial purpose and validate the character).

At the same time, I'm generally not a fan of the deus ex machina ending where everyone is convinced the MC has died, then he/she groans or rolls over or something and makes a total and miraculous recovery. In those situations, I'd actually prefer the MC died or survived but at a believable price.

Paul Tobin said...

Hmmm...if you kill off the main character are they still the main character? Sorry to be a pedant. Or do you mean at the finale of the story? Conan Doyle killed off Holmes but then brough him back for shedloads of money, though as a Cornish boat man said to him, "He was never the same when he came back", I would have to agree. Perhaps its braver to do away with the main character so that you are not tempted to morph them into a cash cow for our old age.

Mark Noce said...

I think it adds a special feeling to certain stories when a main character dies. Case in point, Hector in the Iliad or Juliet in Shakespeare. No matter how many times I reread them I always convince myself that they'll make it this time even though I know that they'll die in the end. Hope spring eternal:)

Carol Kilgore said...

I've written the death of a main character in a short story, but not in a novel. It's all about the story, though. Like the movie "The Departed".

Susan Kane said...

I know that the MC is doomed in some novels, it's the only way things can get resolved. But it doesn't mean I like it.

Tizzy said...

I think when a supporting character dies it can act as a great motivation to spur the MC on to victory and keep the story going. I'm less comfortable with MC's being killed off though. Recently I read My Sister's Keeper and I felt the ending was just so abrupt that it kind of annoyed me. I think you have to have a good reason to kill off an MC and there has to be something good that comes out of it i.e the MC makes a sacrifice to save someone else. They have to win overall in some way even if they die.

Jenna Blake Morris said...

Most of my favorite characters end up dying, so I'm getting a little resigned to it. Still, I don't like it. I think death can actually enhance a book -- if it's pulled off with just the right touch. I don't approve of killing characters off just *because*, but I understand sometimes it just needs to happen. Though I can almost never condone killing off a main character; that's usually too far.

Lydia K said...

I can't think of any! There have been ones that a twist, like you know the MC is dead or going to die at the beginning, then you go on the journey to find out why. Maybe that's an exception.

Len Lambert said...

I can't think of any character who died and it was good for the story :( When I read the Harry Potter series and Sirius Black died, the only family HP had, it broke my heart for HP. I couldn't understand why Sirius had to die! I felt that was so cruel to do! This is a tough question! :)

Cally Jackson said...

I can think of an example of a book that was made stronger by the death of its MC - The Lovely Bones. That book couldn't have happened if Susie didn't die.

To be honest, I think that the death of an important character is a powerful plot device - it makes you realise how much you care about the characters and how invested you are in the story. I was actually a little disappointed that no one important died in the entire Twilight series. After everything that happened, it seemed a little unrealistic that everyone escaped unscathed!

Jake Henegan said...

Killing off characters can have a really great effect. One character dying can motivate others to a great extent and get them out of their inaction.

One example I can think of is The Stand by Stephen King.

I kill characters off a lot. Sometimes it's supporting cast, but I've killed off the MC at the end as well. As long as there's a reason to do it.

Madeleine said...

Good question. I'll have to think more about this.

Sometimes the death of supporting characters can seem a little contrived. Not all good authors write death well, either.

The Golden Eagle said...

Shelly: True! :)

Linda: Neither an I--though I have though about writing a kind of death for one project . . . I never finished that novel, though. :P

Barbara: I don't like tragedies much, either. They're overly dramatic.

Heather: I agree--if it fits the story right (and I think there are relatively few cases in which this happens) then yes, it would make sense.

Gracie: LOL. Good point! :)

Budd: I've never read that book--but I'll have to check it out!

Laila: Yup, if the villain dies, then not much loss there. :P

Deborah: I have got to get around to reading that book/series sometime . . . I see George R. R. Martin's name all over the place!

Carrie: Most of the time I feel that way, too. Unless it's absolutely, absolutely necessary.

Crystal: Another book I have to get around to reading! :)


Christine: I agree.

Yes, I DO have to get around to reading that one sometime!

E. R.: That's how it comes across to me, sometimes. Like the author threw in the death just to propel the story forward, which doesn't help things.

Michael: Charlotte's Web was the first book I ever read, actually. (That was one of those ten-words-a-page primers. :P)

I like the example--her death made sense in the wider scheme of things.

Sarah: I will have to get around to reading that book . . .

Michael: I agree! If the MC isn't someone I support/like, then that lessens the blow.

Me, too; though I kind of recoil form the idea. :P

Sananora: It often makes me feel sad, too.

Tere: LOL. Well, that is true--drastic circumstances (i. e. writer's block) take drastic measrues. ;)

Sturm Brightblade? Ack, I've got to write down all these titles people you bloggers are mentioning! :)

David: Good point. Harry Potter did die in a way, but J. K. Rowling found a way around it. (I would have been SO angry if she had had Harry die . . . :P)

Sarah: Ha, I would be less unwilling to do that. They're more dispensable . . . no offense to the sidekicks!

Old Kitty: Another book for the TBR. :) It sounds like the death was pulled off quite well!

Classics are fine! In fact, it's interesting that MCs died even in older novels; it's not such a modern thing.

The Golden Eagle said...

Clarissa: Everyone died? Gosh. That's a lot of people. It sounds like a sad book. :(

I agree! If the death isn't absolutely vital, then it shouldn't be there.

Alex: Nope, I haven't read CassaStar, but I read it in one of the comments on your blog . . . don't worry, I'm still dying to read your book! :D

Good for you. If you ask me, it takes a lot of writerly skill to pull off the death of a major character in a story.

Jennifer: I hate having to kill certain characters, too; sometimes it feels like it's the good ones that end up dying all the time. :P

I didn't like them, either--but I though The Lord of hte Flies was a good book, still.

I agree!

Rusty: I read a trilogy whose MC died in the last book, almost last page; that was a major shock. But still, I thought the ending worked.

If you don't mind my asking, which book was it? I'm curious. :)

Laughingwolf: I agree--though it is sad to see one of the major characters die in story (especially if they're some of the better ones).

Tricia: I've never heard about the second pair of characters you mention, but I never did like Romeo & Juliet much; that story never appealed. :P

I don't like killing characters, either. It hurts, after you've gotten to "know" them.

Nancy: It sounds like their deaths are very important to the story! That kind of death makes sense; when it moves the plot along in a meaningful way, for the characters.

Susan: I really have to read that series sometime . . . just so I know in better detail what people are talking about when they mention Martin. :P

Beth: True--though Romeo & Juliet is one of those stories where I thought not having them die would have worked better.

Marlena: Me, too.

I read a book about a character who had leukemia; she died in the end, but it was a beautiful story.

The Golden Eagle said...

Rob-bear: Yes!

Memzie: I will, I will! I think I'll put a hold on it from one of my libraries and have it brought over; I really want to read it. :D

LynNerd: Me, too. Though some authors have done it effectively.

Alleged: I've never read a Stephen King book where he killed the MC (though, granted, I've only tried one of his books. :P).

Same here.

Brittany: I agree. If someone insignificant dies but there's a huge uproar about it, then that doesn't make much sense.

Trisha: LOL. I'll have to check out that series; I don't mind nasty evil characters all that much, if they're written well. :P

Me, too.

Anthony: I agree. If it works well enough for the story, then I don't have much against it.

Jennifer: I've reread boks where the MC dies, but not many of them; or, in the case of series, I read a book that's earlier on where the CM is still alive.

Rachna: She fainted? That must have been a powerful story, then! :)

I would kill off an MC--but only if I thought it was absolutely necessary, and that doesn't happen much.

Tracy: True; it is nice to have a change of pace, but I often find that it's better for the story if the MC survives.

Phil: LOL. That's good!

I agree. And if the author isn't will to put work into figuring out a different, better ending, that will turn me off their writing.

Jules: I agree--that is annoying. You can't just resurrect characters because you need them again.

Reece: I agree. If the MC loses what they learn with no effect otherwise, then the story really is pointless. They have to actually learn something and use it in their life.

I hate deus ex machina endings--always. :P

Paul: Definitely. If you kill off the main character, you should stay with that death and not have them come back to live again; that's just a underhanded trick.

Mark: LOL. Yes, I've found myself hoping in stories where the MC(s) die, even though I know they do . . .

Carol: I've never seen The Departed--sounds like I should, though. :)

The Golden Eagle said...

Susan: I agree. Even if it works for the story, I don't necessarily like it . . . though I appreciate that the author took the step.

Tizzy: I agree--something positive has to happen to/with the MC if they die in the end.

My Sister's Keeper is another book I mean to read sometime; I see that one all over the place, too.

Jenna: I'm sorry to hear that. I would start getting seriously annoyed if all my favorite characters ended up dying . . . :P

I agree--though it can be done, I think.

Lydia: Good point!

I love stories about journeys made by a character. :)

Len: I agree about Sirius; and the sad thing about that is Harry could have prevented himself from running off on a wild goose chase--that was set by Voldemort. He could have listened to Snape, but he didn't.

Cally: I have to read that book! :)

The ending in The Twilight Series drove me up the wall. Meyer said she didn't want a "Hamlet-style" ending, but she sure seemed to be setting things up that way. It didn't make sense.

Jake: I have The Stand in my TBR pile; looking forward to reading it!

Good for you--I don't think I would be able to kill off many of my MCs.

Madeleine: I agree. Contrived endings don't work at all--a story must be realistic, otherwise it's too easy to walk away from it.

Anonymous said...

I haven't killed off a MC yet.

I get bummed when that happens. I can't remember any instances, but I know I've read books where that happened.

Elliot Grace said...

...great question, Eagle ;)

One would think that keeping a strong storyline would be difficult with the passing of the MC. Perhaps if the loss were to occur at the story's end, as part of the climax, part of the inevitable outcome, then it could work. And as mentioned above, some of the most influential stories ever penned have played host to such travesties,and success soon followed.


Laura said...

I'm not keen on character's being killed off - MC's or secondary characters, unless it's absolutely vital to the story. I read a chick lit once and a secondary was killed off for no particular reason... it really turned me off that author!

Rusty Webb said...

Eagle - you said:

"If you don't mind my asking, which book was it? I'm curious. :)"

I can't do that. I'd ruin it for you. I'll just tell you that the book was nominated for a Hugo for best novel.

Seriously, I can't tell you any more. I feel awful for saying that much.

The Golden Eagle said...

Medeia: Me, neither. Though I would do it--if I bit unhappily. :P

Elliot: Thanks!

I agree; if it happens during the climax of the novel, then there isn't going to be much story left without the MC.

Laura: I hate it when that happens. If there's no particular reason for that character's death, it doesn't help the story.

Rusty: That's okay. I think I've gotten enough spoilers from other comments in the thread already--but I suppose that's to be expected when the post is about the death of characters. :P

Julie @ Knitting and Sundries said...

Although not a major character, I found the only interesting character in The Passage to be the mother, and she died. Even though I kept reading the book (mainly based on the hype), I wished that ANY of the other characters had been as interesting.