Kill the Main Character

I like stories where important characters die. Sometimes violently. Often suddenly. Always by surprise.

I am reading George Martin’s Game of Thrones series. I am deep into Book 4 and have lost count of the number of seemingly major characters who have died over the previous four books.

My favorite TV show of the moment is The Walking Dead. I just caught up with the first half of season 3. ***Spoiler alert: from the beginning of the show to the most recent episode, people die. Lots of them.

I grew up reading both horror and fantasy novels. I read both genres for years and then just stopped. My complaint with both genres was lack of surprise. No matter how unique the adventure, how bold the quest, how vicious the monster, you could rest assured that the hero would survive and overcome. Dull, dull, dull.

When you know the hero is going to survive, there’s really nothing at stake. I love the moment of frisson when a major character fails. The whole narrative spins. Every assumption about the rules of the story get reexamined. Everything is fresh and uncertain and the characters who remain get a lot more interesting because there are no guarantees. Everything is suddenly at stake.

This works best in stories of epic scale, tales with plenty of major characters to spare. But you can’t just stock the shelves with disposable bodies. You must first make me care about them. I need to relate to their motivation and root for them to succeed. Don’t let the death be entirely meaningless. The death should be quick and merciless. It should happen suddenly from an unseen direction, but it cannot be random and it must advance the story and increase the dramatic tension. The death must diminish the hopes of those who remain and then, inexorably,  force them to grow and inhabit their potential in unexpected ways.

Don’t write the same story over and over again. Invent new rules. Twist the old rules. Be brave. Force your characters to be brave. Kill your major characters. Don’t let the reader get too comfortable. I don’t read to be comfortable. I read to destroy my beliefs and unmake my assumptions. Surprise me. Don’t let me relax. Disturb me. I will thank you. I will read your books.

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6 thoughts on “Kill the Main Character

  1. I was actually talking about this with a friend the other day. Another friend and I have been issuing each other short story challenges. I’ve written two stories for him so far and the lead character dies in both of them. The friend I was speaking to asked why my stories don’t have happy endings. I told her that the story feels more real to me if everything doesn’t work out perfectly. We all expect the hero or heroine to turn out perfectly and for life to be a fairy tale, things don’t work that way.
    I suppose that’s why I also love the walking dead and game of thrones. It’s also one of the reasons why I love Joss Whedon’s work. He sends his characters to hell and back and there is still no guarantee that everything will end up ok.
    Love the post!

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    1. Exactly. Right there with you. I need to dig deeper into Joss Whedon’s work. I am prepared to love Buffy when I actually sit down to watch it. Would love to see a story if you want to share.

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      1. The other thing I think you’ll love about his work is his use of language. How he changes it and digs into the way words used to be used, especially in Firefly.
        I’ve been thinking of posting my stories on my blog actually but I have this problem where I despise 90% of what I write lol. My most recent one definitely needs editing…I have a problem with using too many words to say what I want to say.

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  2. It’s a delicate dance. The reader must always feel like anything is possible, that any character, no matter how important, is in jeopardy. And GRRM is really good at wrenching the narrative in interesting ways by killing off big, important characters.

    On the other hand, like all writing techniques, it can be handled badly. I remember one of Stephen King’s pseudonymous books (The Regulators, I believe?) killed off the one character I cared about within 100 pages, and I never read any further. So it’s an important and difficult line to balance on. When is killing off a character playing it safe? In the Walking Dead comics, for instance, it sometimes feels like Kirkman only knows how to ratchet up the tension by killing someone… there are many ways.

    And I will second Joss Whedon. I think he occasionally stumbles in unnecessarily killing off important characters, but more often than not, he pulls it off. If seven seasons of Buffy seems like a big mouthful to swallow, try Firefly or Dollhouse (although you have to take it on faith that Dollhouse starts bad but goes amazing places).

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