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How to Murder Your Character - And Get Away With It!
Readers aren't often happy when the protagonist of a novel dies. If you don't pull it off well, you'll lose your audience. With skillful foreshadowing and planning you can make your character's demise seem inevitable and still create a satisfying conclusion to your story. And keep your readers coming back.
Please note, this article contains a few spoilers.
How Killing Your Characters Angers Your Readers
l remember the heft of the book as I flung it against the wall. Can hear the thunk as it hit sheetrock and the slither of pages as it slid down.
I'd read several romance novels by the author, all about the same Egyptian dynasty. I came to this one...and near the end, the main character is brutally murdered, her body cut into small pieces and scattered across the desert, her name effaced from every carving and script that bore it.
I was shocked. Furious. I felt betrayed.
First off, this was a romance novel. A genre that is based around happy endings. The author had broken the contract of what a "romance novel" meant.
Nor had I been given clue one that the protagonist would not survive her various trials, troublesome though they may have seemed. Up until her body was chopped to bits, I still expected her beloved to save her. I finished the book with a feeling of disbelief. Was it a trick? Was I going to find that she'd faked her death? No.
I never read another book by that author. I couldn't trust her anymore.
That's what's likely to happen to your book if you kill off a favorite character and don't handle it well.
Now sometimes, and in some novels the main character does have to die, or it won't be true to the story.
The Heart of the Fire by Cerridwen Fallingstar, was a story about the Burning Times. An era when witches were regularly tortured and murdered. I was perhaps naive in expecting a happy ending. When Fiona died, I cried for 3 days before I picked the book up and finished it. Even worse was the scene (just before her death) when her cat is killed by the witch finders. But at least her death made sense in the context the novel was set in.
Unlike the first example, I'd joyfully read anything else Fallingstar wrote.
I'm not wild about most books where the main character dies, but if you're going to write it, do it well. Give your readers a clue, so that they don't end up throwing your book across the room and refusing to read your work ever again.
So how do you do it? How do you kill off your main character (or even a favorite minor one) without alienating your reader?
Set Their Death Up From the Begining
My name was Yanan and my story began where it ended, in Graylag's lodge on the highest terrace above the north bank of the Char River.
So begins Reindeer Moon by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, a fascinating and evocative novel set in prehistoric Siberia.
From the first sentence the author lets us know that the protagonist is dead with the use of, "my name was" and "began where it ended." Within a chapter or so, we learn that Yanan is a ghost, bound to the lodge of her clan and who now serves them by calling the spirits of animals to the hunters so the family can eat.
By the time you get to the third-or-so chapter, where Yanan actually dies, you are already comfortable with the fact that Yanan is in the world of spirit. You may be saddened and dismayed by the manner of her death. But you knew it was coming. If anything you're curious how it happened.
In Unquiet Memories (in progress) the second novel in The Witches' Gates Saga, I set up the fact that Willa's dealing with a ghost in the first few chapters. It's not a mystery that Rachel is dead, just the how and why of it.
Writers of novels about historical characters have it easy here. Whether you're reading The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn by Robin Maxwell, The Other Boleyn Girl (where her sister Mary is actually the protagonist), Brief Gaudy Hour or other novels about Anne Boleyn, you know that Anne will end with her neck at the axe. You read, not to find out if she makes it out alive, but to learn what she went through, how she seduced Henry, even IF she seduced Henry or if he seduced her, or if the crown and madness seduced them both.
Show that Your Character's Death is Inevitable
Marley and Me: Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog by John Grogan is one of the most beautiful love stories I've ever read. (The movie is great too.) If you haven't read it, it's a story about a man and a dog. The baddest dog in the world. The best dog in the world. But we know from the start that dogs don't usually live for more than fourteen years. Therefore we know this story will probably end in heartache.
Another "love story" along similar lines is the movie (and novel) My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult. Anna was born and biologically engineered to be an organ donor for Kate, her older sister who is dying of leukemia. Now Anna wants to be "medically emancipated" so she isn't forced to give her kidney to her sister. So when Kate eventually dies, we're not surprised. If anything, we're uplifted by Kate's desire for a good death, by her gentleness with Anna, by Anna's strength in following her sister's wishes.
Mistress to the King, Mary is forced onto the sidelines by her manipulative and power hungry family.who plot to put her sister Anne on the throne.
Start the Story With Bloodshed
In The Other Boleyn Girl, the story begins with the execution of the Duke of Buckingham. We're told right from the start that bad things can happen. When the story ends with Anne's execution, we're less surprised. (Even if we don't already know Anne's history.)
The more gentle you are with the fates of other characters the less likely your readers will expect you to hurt your main, so early violence can help foreshadow violence and death later on.
In 1984, other characters are disappeared on a regular basis, and Room 101 is alluded to well before our hero. Winston Smith arrives there. So when he is finally brought to Room 101 and meets a fate that is arguably worse than death, we the reader, are prepared.
In The Heart of the Fire, Fiona's torture and death was presaged by the murder of her cat. The trouble here was that the cat's death didn't happen soon enough. (Eww...did I say that?) Up until that chapter (almost at the end) I didn't have a clue that Fiona wouldn't survive. Until then I thought I was reading a historical romance. Everything that led up to that showed us her happy childhood with her grandmother, her growth as a shaman and herbalist, her romance with her friend Sean, and her friendship with her best buddy Annie.
Oh sure, there were warnings about the witch finders, but did I expect that at the end Fiona would be brutally raped and tortured? No. If the novel had brought in more of these aspects from the beginning I might have been prepared.
Have you ever killed a main character in your story or novel?
Use a Minor Character Narrator or Multiple Narrators
Perhaps the classic example here is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Even though the story is about Gatsby, it comes to us through the eyes of Nick Carraway, his neighbor and confidante. Immediately the savvy reader should ask, "why aren't you telling this through the eyes of the main character?" At least since the days of Fitzgerald!
Fitzgerald's choice was particularly brilliant. Not only was Nick able to bring the novel to a close after Gatsby's death. His fascination with the man kept Gatsby's mystery intact until the end, and kept the reader intrigued and in a way that wouldn't have worked, had the book been written from Gatsby's viewpoint.
Marge Piercy's novel, City of Darkness, City of Light follows the lives of six different characters through the perils of the French Revolution. By the end, only two main characters are alive. Just enough to bring the book to a satisfying and hopeful conclusion, despite the expected horrors of that time.
Tell a Parallel Story of Tragedy
He, She and It, again by Marge Piercy, is told in two different timelines. In one timeline we follow the life of the cyborg Yod, mostly through the eyes of his lover. In the second timeline we hear the story of the Golem (another artificially created being).
There are many overlaps between the two tales, and many similarities between Yod and Joseph.
When Joseph's story ends in a bad way, we can suspect that Yod's won't turn out much better.
Even as the tears stung my eyes, at Yod's passing, I realized that was the only way the story could have ended.
Foreshadow Death with Thematic Images
In the movie Jaws, the audience doesn't get a real look at the shark until the estuary attack. Up till then, Spielberg uses John Williams' spooky score, and Hitchcockian thematic images to prepare us to see the creature.
When you're writing a novel or story, there's no musical score to get the reader's hackles up, or prepare them for the death of a character. (That's probably fortunate,since few of us writers are ALSO masterful composers.) You can, however use thematic images to foreshadow death - both the manner of death and the fact that death is stalking your characters.
For example, you might show your readers a dead and gnarled tree, a dusty barren landscape complete with sun baked skulls, or a moldering, moss-draped pond, or show a gallows being built. One of my songs/poems-in--progress speaks of dried pansies, ancient lace and dust as a metaphor for death. What natural or man-made images mean death to you?
Or your foreshadowing might consist of the murder weapon itself. Show the murderer cleaning their shotgun. Put the knife under the protagonist's pillow. And if the manner of death is even more esoteric, it's absolutely essential to show that carousel unicorn horn or decorative fence that the character is going to impale themselves on.
Let your characters talk about death as well. Perhaps Aunt Fannie mentions the ghostly tendrils of Spanish Moss and speaks about them as a harbinger of death. Or Fred is fascinated by the gravestones in the nearby cemetery.
Don't overdo it though. Choose one or two images to represent death and show the murder weapon if needed.
Please Not the Death Card
The Death Card and the Ace of Spades must be the most overdone "Harbinger of Death" trope in the history of movies,
As a psychic and tarot reader, as well as a writer, I'm utterly sick of the Death Card trope. Not only does the card NOT represent actual death, but it's just tired and overdone.
Be original. If you use symbols and themes, do your best to be unique.
For Gods Sake, Not in a Romance! - Be Genre Appropriate!
If you want to kill off Old Yeller or your other favorite protagonist or character and if the story truly warrants it, then do so. But please, oh please don't market it as a romance novel. The entire genre is based on the idea that somehow the lovers will work out their troubles, reunite and end up holding hands in the sunset.
Romance readers read for the "how" they will do so, not whether or not they will. (Well, that and the gratuitous sex.)
Certainly the writer should keep up the tension and make it POSSIBLE for the lovers to die, break up, or whatever till the very end. Having the protagonist--or her lover--of a romance die at the end of a book will only enrage your reader. (Unless you're writing a paranormal, in which case it might still allow them to "live" happily ever after.)
Certain genres allow for deaths of main characters and others don't. In a horror,everyone's life is up for grabs. (Notice that many of these begin with numerous characters, some of which may be actual main characters, others are actually cannon fodder.)
In a murder mystery, we expect our intrepid sleuth to survive.
Had the Egyptian Queen who started this rant been presented to me as a historical novel, I could have dealt. As a love story, in a chain of love stories with all of them ending in blissful romance, it was about as appropriate as an amputation at a bridal shower.
If either of your lovers die during the course of your book (and don't come back as a sexy vampire or ghost) your book is not a romance novel.
Be Sure Your Sidekicks Die for Righteous Reasons
Andrew Vachss "Burke" novels featured "Pansy," a Neapolitan mastiff who was Burke's closest companion.
She died several books into the series. I'm pretty sure I wasn't the only fan who mourned Pansy's death. By then she'd become as important as any human character in the series. Possibly more so, as she was Burke's lifeline to sanity. And yes, after Pansy died, he went more than a little crazy.
If you kill off a sidekick, there had better be a deep dark impact on your hero, More than that, you should have already made your sidekick well loved. And they'd better die making your protagonist safe in some way.
Random accident is just not acceptable here. Sidekicks don't have random accidents.
Nor should sidekicks die with any regularity. Several books into Vacchs' series many folks have died (it is after all a crime/murder mystery series) but the only companion to the main character that's gone has been Pansy.
Because of that, and because it happened several books into the series, her death was as shocking as it should be. Assuming you're writing a series, do not abuse sidekicks by knocking them off early. Give your audience time to fall in love before you take their beloved character away.
No Fault in Our Star Crossed Loves
Tragic romance has been done and overdone for centuries.
Lovers who die from terminal diseases, because of warring families or due to suicide because of their gender relationship issues are overdone to the point of cliche.
In the days when tuberculosis (consumption) was common, every third pale heroine seems to have died of the disease.
If you plan to tackle any of these, you'll need a new and refreshing take on the situation.
Sunshine, a movie about a woman contemplating whether or not to continue cancer treatment, worked not only because it was a new concept when the movie came out, but because it was a movie about her love for her child, not her love for a mate.
My Sister's Keeper, worked not only because it was a love story between two sisters, but because of the surprise ending. (I won't spoil it.)
The Fault in Our Stars worked because despite the ancient plot of "Boy meets girl. Girl and boy are both terminal. One of them dies," the subplot was refreshing, the acting was good.
Mountain Shadows by Patti Brooks is a novel about a consumptive heroine. The things that makes it great are the brilliant and detailed historical research, the juxtaposition with the world of Prohibition era drug running and the epic struggle of her husband Joe to reach and provide for her.
Romeo and Juliet worked because...oh heck, it was Shakespeare, and when did Shakespeare not work?
Murdering Your Characters Should Make Your Book Stronger
Don't kill off your mains for shock value unless the genre you're writing in can sustain that sort of shock. Horror, historicals about real people or mainstream literary novels are some of the few that can withstand it.
Be cautious of killing of long-standing "sidekicks." That will cause fan rage unless it resounds with your plot. Don't let your protagonist accept this without going off on a murderous spree or a descent into madness.
The only good reason to kill off your protagonist or any other important character is if it will make your story "more true."
Define "more true" as a story that will relate to your theme, will create a satisfying ending, will make sense of the story.
No protagonists (beyond those mentioned in the above novels) were harmed in the making of this article. Don't harm your own characters without good reason and good foreshadowing.
This article was originally published on NakedWithoutAPen on 3/8/2011.