Writers who Murder

photo by jin.thai
photo by jin.thai

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? 

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About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.

Comments

  1. Carmel says

    What about killing off a secondary character in order to reflect the realism of the situation the characters are in? Is that more palatable to readers?

    The death that sticks with me most is the death of Matthew in Anne of Green Gables. Heartbreaking, and yet I loved Matthew even more after his death.

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    • says

      There is nothing more powerful than killing off a secondary character to add an element of realism to the story. We’ve seen such an act change a silly adventure book into a more engaging story. Though, don’t do it too often, because then your readers will come to expect it.

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    • says

      It is easier to kill off a secondary character, as long as that character is dying in the service of the story. You’re right that, when your protagonist is in a dangerous situation, having someone he or she knows die is a good way to show this.

      The real trick is killing off the character the story is about and still ending the story well. Not necessarily happily, but well.

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  2. says

    The original ending to my WIP was exactly what you’ve described–an author murder–because I had (very) loosely based my plot on actually events, though I had changed the plot enough so that the death no longer made sense. Everyone who read it hated the ending, including my cousin who said she threw the manuscript across the living room floor. Eventually my stubborn blindness gave way, and my heroine lives mostly happily ever after.

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  3. says

    I hate it when the main character dies, but if it’s a fitting price for his (her) actions. I can live with it. I despise stories ending in hopelessness. Give me a shred of hope at least.

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  4. says

    Wait, Dobby dies??? (Joking) I loved Sirius, too.

    I think it’s okay to pick on a bestseller, in the spirit of learning and sharing, so I’ll confess that I disliked the ending of Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, for just the reasons you describe.

    SPOILER ALERT (And I’m referring to the book; don’t know if the movie ends the same way)

    Anna, the brave young girl who fights for her right to make her own decisions about her body, even after learning she was conceived with the hope that she could eventually be a bone marrow and kidney donor for her sister, wins that right, then dies in a car crash after leaving the courthouse, so her sister gets her kidney after all. Even though the sister supported and encouraged Anna — even suggested Anna fight — and wasn’t sure she wanted to go through the transplant. I honestly thought Picoult could have found another resolution. Even if Anna had ultimately decided to make the donation anyway, that would have felt more satisfying.

    END SPOILER

    But killing a secondary character can work wonders on a plot. At least, as a mystery writer who kills in every book, I hope so!

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    • says

      No Leslie, you are not allowed to hate My Sister’s Keeper (just kidding). I love that book because of the ending. It was the first book I wanted to throw across the room. I actually had a mini-tantrum, but I refused to throw my book. I never knew someone could piss me off through a novel.

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  5. says

    I’ve been thinking. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest surviving piece of fiction we have (dating back four millennia or so), a secondary character, Enkidu, is killed off. So the technique of weaving a secondary character’s death into your plot goes back a ways.

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  6. says

    Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a great example of the main character dying at the end, and it being right for the novel.
    I cried when I read it, and I cried when I saw the movie too.

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  7. says

    Great entry. I’m writing something that this entry may have helped.

    Jack Torrance, in Stephen King’s The Shining, is another character who wins by dying, specifically because he also wins back his self-respect, and he saves his son’s life, too. Can’t wait for the sequel, especially if the son appreciates this fact.

    A death that highlights the meaningless, or, perhaps, the meaningfulness, of existence, is of the two main characters in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

    And, of course, there’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, though I don’t quite know what to make of their demise, except–what else could have happened to them, in that picture?

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  8. says

    I’ve seen several movies where the protagonist died in the end, and it always left me with a bitter taste. I don’t like when that happens.

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    • says

      Jevon, it is really hard to do right.

      And, Steven, I suspect that Butch and Sundance’s deaths were a case of “Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse.” Some would consider that a triumph, I guess.

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  9. says

    I understand what you’re saying, but I’ll say I did kill of the MC in a novel series I wrote because, as many a writer will tell you, they wouldn’t leave me alone to move on to knew characters. So I killed every last one of them. Not to say that anyone will ever read it, but I had to move on.

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    • says

      Lroi, now that’s a reason to kill off a main character that I hadn’t thought of. Though I can understand it. I’m told Agatha Christie hated Hercule Poirot but couldn’t stop using him because he was to popular.

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  10. says

    Great post, and I agree totally. Murder is a vile crime for an author to commit. To use the aforementioned J. K. Rowling as an example, I remember puffing over the last book in the Harry Potter series because of the various deaths. I had expected a substantial body count, but the manner in which some occurred pissed me off no end. Characters like the twin (can’t remember which one, sorry) and Lupin felt utterly thrown away. Part of me reasoned that it underlined the shock and futility of war, that sometimes these things suddenly happen out of the blue and that not everybody gets their ‘hero moment’, but bloody hell I felt robbed.

    In working deaths into my own books, I’m having to question myself at every turn – is this the right thing to do? What does it mean? Does this serve a purpose? Is this the only way I can impact and change the people/situation?

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  11. says

    Such a clever distinction between a necessary death and murder.

    I have twice been “suckered” by reading of the deaths of the protag’s – once in a US series about a female PI, and once in a Scandanavian series about a male policeman – and both times I have been outraged. Angry not just at the books I threw against the wall, but at all the time I had put into reading all the books in the series.

    I realise, now, that it was because the authors killed them off – a cowardly way out of writing more in the series – rather than facing fans and saying, “I’m tired of that series. Enough.”

    In short – it was murder most foul!

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