Not long ago, a client told me that someone who read his manuscript suggested he end the book by killing off his main character. At first, this didn’t make a lot of sense. How could you spend an entire novel building an emotional connection between your readers and your main character only to throw it away at the end? Wouldn’t that leave your readers screaming?
But it can and has been done. Understanding how to let your characters die can help to make your story live, whether your characters make it to the last page or not.
What doesn’t work is murder. Offing a character for the sake of pathos is clearly homicide. This is why few people are reading Love Story any more, and The Old Curiosity Shop is not on anyone’s favorite book list. Some writers have killed off a main character simply because they couldn’t think of another way to end the story. I could offer an example, but, for good reason, you would never have heard of it. In some circles, an arbitrary death is considered a fitting illustration of existential meaninglessness. I can’t offer an example, because I don’t read those books.
The reason these deaths are murders is that the characters are sacrificed for the author’s reasons – generating the weepies, or filling a plot hole, or catering to a modernist cliché of meaninglessness. Whenever you make your characters do things to fulfill your needs rather than their own, your story is in trouble.
On the other hand, when Anna Karenina threw herself under the train, she was ending her story the only way it could have ended. She’d lost her identity as a wife, mother, and society matron, and believed she was in the process of losing the only thing left to her – Vronsky. Her death was self-inflicted rather than author-inflicted because it was the only remaining choice she had.
Then there’s Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. If you haven’t read the book since high school, it’s the story of a nameless “whiskey priest” trying to get away from anti-clerical persecution in a province in Mexico. The priest is a miserable failure of a man, cowardly, alcoholic, and the father of an illegitimate child. He eventually escapes across the border, but in the end overcomes his cowardice to return to hear a confession. The confession turns out to be a trap, and he is captured and executed.
The whiskey priest’s death arises from the interplay between the internal and external tensions in his life. He’s fighting against his own failures as much as against his persecutors, and that internal struggle for dignity is the more important of the two. When he reclaims his self-respect through his death, readers can still walk away satisfied. The priest dies, but he wins through dying.
Just as murder doesn’t work, maiming or stunting a character is story-damaging brutality. Have you ruined a promising character by failing to give your protagonist realistic flaws? Have you cut off a character’s natural need to grow and change by the end of the story? Granted, a lot of successful adventure novels manage to end with the hero no wiser for having saved the world. But the most satisfying stories end with characters who are fully grown and developed.
In the end, my client decided not to kill his main character, even though it would have given him a chance to comment on the society she lived in – which may be why his reader suggested it. But it wouldn’t have done anything for her as a character or wrapped up her story in any way. It would have been murder.
Have you read a novel in which the main character died? How did you react to that death? What do you think about killing off your protagonist in general?