Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Should You Kill Off Your Protagonist?

“Should I kill off my protagonist?” This is a question that many aspiring writers ask themselves and sometimes they can’t decide whether they should or not.

Is it bad to kill off your protagonist? Not necessarily, but it isn’t good either. Killing off your protagonist is most often seen as a cruel thing for a writer to do. If you make your readers fall in love with your protagonist, even for just one book, not to mention a whole series, and then kill them, it’ll sit badly with your readers. They could very well hate you for it. So killing off your protagonist shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Someone once asked me when it is ever okay to kill off your protagonist, if at least for shock value. That question and my response spawned this post . . .

If you’re writing a series, the right time to let an antagonist win is when you don’t want to continue it anymore. Killing off the protagonist is an effective way to bring the series to a close. It is also a very drastic option to choose. There are other ways to end a book or series if you no longer wish to write about that protagonist anymore, especially if you’re not sure if killing off your protagonist is okay.

One option is a “happily ever after” ending that I was talking about in my previous post. Why not let your protagonist live and live happily instead? This type of ending may not be shocking, but it’ll serve its purpose. Another option is to let the antagonist win in whatever way fits your story, but at the same time you let your protagonist keep his/her life. 

Yup, I am the artist for the amazing piece! :P
If you don’t plan to write a sequel and are going for shock value then letting the antagonist win will do the job perfectly. There is nothing more shocking then when a much-loved protagonist is killed by the evil bastard who has been out to get him/her during the course of the book. It all depends on the writer though and the story you are telling. If you don’t care for “happily ever afters” and want to end your book like ripping off a band aid then this tactic is the one for you.


Before you kill of your protagonist though you need to make sure it makes sense to the story line. You can't just kill off a character for shock value. There has to be a reason for it. If your story calls for the death of the protagonist, if there is no other logical way to end your story, then do it.

In the end, the decision to kill off your protagonist is yours to make. Think on it for a while and then stand by your choice.


QUESTION: Could you ever kill off your protagonist? Have you??


22 comments:

  1. The thought of killing off my protagonist strikes fear in me. What did they do to deserve it? I think I would only do it if it were absolutely necessary and there was no other possible way to end the story. I don't know what set of circumstances in a novel would lead to this, but hey, you never know!

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    1. For me, killing of my protagonist would be like killing my child. I think I'd always be able to come up with some way to defeat the antagonist. Look at Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling made it seem like the only way to defeat Voldemort was if Harry also died, but she found a way to keep Harry alive and gave him a happy ending to boot. :D

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  2. Just let go and let them die! ;)
    I am an evil reader I don't mind if there is a twist of death. with everything that Alex Cross has been through he deserves some rest.The only problem is when I think of him I think of Morgan Freeman, and I like him.

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    1. I can't let go. lol Or not at least with the protagonists I've created thus far. There may come a time in the future when I do kill a protagonist, but I think this protagonist (whomever he or she may be) would have to turn out bad at the end for me to do it.

      I like Morgan Freeman too! In my eyes, he's immortal. And with everything Alex Cross has gone through, he deserves a happily ever after! :)

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  3. No, I would NOT kill off my protagonist. I hate books that end that way, even though folks tell me 'it's GOOD for you!'. This does not mean I would not allow my protagonist to be defeated. A happy-end for every story isn't very realistic or satisfying.
    In books that do end with the death of the protagonist, I think it's essential to keep the reader aware that this is the kind of book in which the protagonist might die. An unforeshadowed protagonist death is not a good technique.

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    1. You're right; a happy ending isn't always realistic. One could certainly let the protagonist be defeated while also letting him/her stay alive. And if a writer does want to kill of their protagonist, hinting that the he/she may die throughout the book would be a good strategy to brace readers. And, if done right, it could still have a shocking ending. Thank you for your comment, Nissa!

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  4. I tackled this in Touch of Death, but I can't say how because it will spoil it for anyone who wants to read it. I can say that in one of my other books, The Monster Within, I open the story with my MC coming back from the dead. That was fun. :)

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    1. The MC from my supernatural-thriller series come back from the dead a few times lol . . . because I could never fully kill her. And it is extremely fun! ;)

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  5. I have in short horror stories, where the protagonist triumphs over evil but loses his life in the process - but that's horror. I can't kill my protagonist in novels. My name's not George RR Martin... ;)

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    1. In one of my short stories the MC is a ghost, so I guess you can say I killed her. lol I'm with you that I can't kill my protagonists in my novels. They may come close to death, or I may kill them but bring them back to life. lol

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  6. So the answer is . . . it all depends. See River's comment above regarding George R.R. Martin's "Game of Thrones." I could add other titles such as "The Wire," "Dexter," "Breaking Bad," and "The Sopranos." Yes, these are TV series and not novels, but they're still fiction, very popular, and highly acclaimed. Also, I think if you're writing literary fiction it doesn't necessarily matter, as audiences for such works are fairly forgiving. Maybe for more commercial genres (romance, mystery), not so much.

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    1. It definitely does depend on the writer and the story. Some stories just call for the death of the protagonist. As a writer, I'm not against it entirely. As a reader though, it does upset me. lol

      Yes, this post is directed more toward genre fiction. Readers don't very much like it when the heroes of romances or the MC in mysteries, thrillers, or suspense stories gets killed. Literary fiction is pretty different and is handled a little differently by writers.

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  7. Famous novels/stories where the protagonist dies at the end:

    Kafka's "The Trial"
    Camus's "The Stranger"
    Tolstory's "Anna Karenina"
    Flaubert's "Madame Bovary"
    Thomas Mann's "A Death in Venice"
    Goethe's "Sorrows of Young Werther"
    J.D. Salinger's "A Perfect Day for Banana Fish"
    Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities"

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  8. Actually, I have. (Spoiler) In my first book, there were two main characters, and in order to get the one to the place he needed to be, the other had to die. Wasn't an easy decision. (And I did finish out my series with the other character - he didn't die, either.) Fortunately for me, while fans were sad the character died, no one was mad at me.

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    1. That's a great example, Alex! I've worked with deaths of minor characters that I know will upset my readers, but so far all of my protagonists are alive. ;)

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  9. The choice of whether or not you should kill your protagonist lies within the meaning and outcome of your story. With that being said, I think a protagonist should only meet his/her final end if it is absolutely necessary for the book. As much as I hate to write and read stories where the protagonist dies, I often think about what it would be like to write a piece where something like this happens; just to challenge myself. But like you said; readers tend to enjoy happy endings so if a writer is going to kill their protagonist, it simply has to make sense for the book's entirety. Great post, Chrys!

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    1. The story certainly does impact whether or not you should or should not kill of your protagonist. You can't just kill off an MC or even a minor character because you want to shock your readers. Although it is fun to do that, there has to be a reason for it and it has to fit the story line.

      I have thought about it too, Gina. ;)

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  10. Wholeheartedly with you on not doing it as a shock tactic. Kill him/her off if the story requires, but not for the main purpose of shocking your readers. I have recently submitted a short story (my main character is 13, and she is dying). Her life and impending doom are mentioned throughout but the focus is kept on her wish to survive. So even though in the end, readers don't know for sure if she's going to live or die, they know for sure her aim and wishes and struggles. Great post again, Chrys!

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    1. That sounds like an amazing story, Claudine! I hope your story gets accepted because I want to read it! :D

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