Wednesday, April 18, 2007

killing the main character

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a lot has been written about killing off a main character. I tend to think this should never be done simply because most readers aren't going to like it. i get that, because i don't like characters i care about to die when i'm watching a movie or reading a book.

i just sent in my option proposal for a third book in the Tuonela series. I wanted to kill Evan, but didn't. But without killing him the book seems to lack the impact and feeling of completion it should have brought to the trilogy. when you put the three books together his death would have brought everything full circle and finalized a story arc that carries through all the books. but i don't want to betray readers by killing off somebody they care about.

25 comments:

Sandra Ruttan said...

I think killing off a main character can be done, provided there's the right preparation of the readers. For example, JK Rowling has managed killing off key characters (and who knows what Harry's ultimate fate will be?) without backlash, because it's "leaked" ahead of time.

I've read books where I've really liked someone and I could see it coming, that they were going to die or they were the killer, but it was right and justified within the story. And I can accept that, even if I'm a bit unhappy. But then, I'm a writer, so perhaps I don't view it solely as a reader and understand the idea of giving an author the creative latitude needed to tell their story. It's a dilemma. Fans would have some authors put their protagonists in relationships or change an element of their life... If authors listened to everything fans said they'd be writing to order.

But death is a biggie. Me, personally... all I can say is that if Rankin had decided to kill off Rebus I would accept that. My only request - a headstone at the cemetery where we could pay our respects.

Stephen Blackmoore said...

Kill him.

It's a tragedy. I always got the sense that he was sort of the fallen hero type character; flawed, doing what he can to make things better, but ultimately doomed.

It feels to me that the first book is less a story about him, than a story about his son. As the father degenerates, the son grows to take his place and surpass him. Of course, I may be wildly off the mark here, but that's how I read it.

I cared about Hamlet, too, but I knew he had to die. Same with Beowulf, Arthur and Darth Vader.

As long as his death isn't meaningless I don't think the readers are going to have that much of a problem with it.

Sandra Seamans said...

I think if you kill off a main character, you need to play fair with the reader. Patricia Cornwell killed off Benton in one of her books, then two books later after we go through all the grief and angst with Scarpetta she brought him back. I haven't read another Cornwell book since, not because she killed off Benton, but because it was all a trick.

anne frasier said...

sandra, i do think writers look at it differently. I doesn't bother me to kill off a main character because i think i have to make that emotional break every time i finish a book. i've already killed them a little.

stephen, lol! but you are so right. he was doomed from the beginning, so in a way to not kill him seems like a mistake.

sandra, oh i hate those tricks. i wonder if she brought him back because readers were upset. i'm guessing that was the case, but know nothing about it.

Anonymous said...

Oh, has anyone seen the movie Stranger Than Fiction? It so ties in with this topic.

As a reader I would hate to see a favourite character killed off. I recently read Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz and was definately 'impacted' by death of a character. I loved the book, tears and all...I would have liked it just as much with a happier resolution. Tho, this is the type of series has the option of seeing a reunion of sorts. I HOPE.
Margaret

pattinase (abbott) said...

How do you feel about the main character becoming the killer? I'm not talking about a Roger Ackroyd kind of thing but where the protagonist is driven to kill by the end of the book. Will this turn people off irrevocably?
P.S. A nice stack of Pale Immortal at our local Borders on the front table.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Depends who the victim is Patti. I bet some of us can relate to the desire to kill a reviewer, for example. ;) It might make the main character more heroic in my eyes.

Seriously, I think it does depend on the 'why' and 'who' of the situation. Not a definite no-no, but definitely tricky.

anne frasier said...

margaret, thanks so much for your feedback. i really do think the writer has to consider the reader and the reader's own investment in a character.

patti, it would depend on how it was handled, but i don't think i'd have any problem with that. that could be a powerful scene. i think i'd have to fully understand his motivation though.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Oh, boy did that second line catch me on the right day. Yeah, I'm having seconds thoughts about the original plan.

Jeff said...

I have an alternative ending for every story I write.
In one particular story, I had the main character ending up in an irreversible coma. I used the alternative ending because I was afraid readers would not like the first one.

bekbek said...

When I was a teenager, I fell in love with a comic book. Part of what I fell in love with was the fact that the very pretty (better than japanimation!) characters were evidently in real danger - some of them died even after we'd got to know them and love them.

Of course, it was melodrama. We were permitted to KNOW them and LOVE them.

I think you can kill a character well. I think you can satisfy his or her readership. But the tipping point is delicate. For me, I want to bawl my eyes out. You give me less, and I'll feel you've betrayed me.

As long as the trust between reader and author stays true... there is no death at all.

cinderelly said...

i just bought pale immortal and am about half done. (i do like it, too...i got my daughter hooked on your books too, anne!) while i do like evan, i think i agree with stephen, if his death means something when/if he dies, it is o.k.

Kelly Parra said...

A tough dilemma. It would probably be hard to accept the killing of a main character for me. I'm such a softy! =D

anne frasier said...

jeff, maybe readers could choose their own adventure that way. ;) or a test audience like they do with movies.

bekbek, i don't mind bawling my eyes out either, but strangely enough a lot of people don't enjoy that. :D i'm sure a good cry is healthy. but i do hate leaving a theater when i've been crying. especially when people are lined up watching you come out.

anne frasier said...

oh, patti -- forgot to say that i'm shocked about the pile of books in borders! i can't figure out why they would be in a prime slot like that. that's so strange. i can only guess that a customer put them there or someone in the store liked the book, or they bought a bunch and don't want to strip them.

anne frasier said...

cinderelly, it's interesting to get the perspective of someone who is actually in the middle of the book. and thanks for getting your daughter hooked!

kelly, i'm guessing the majority of people feel that way, but i also wonder if people are more open to a sad story than they used to be. i don't know. it seems that we're seeing more character death on weekly television. but those tend to be in shows with a big cast.

Daniel Hatadi said...

I'm probably with Blackmoore on this. The first book showed Evan as a tragic figure, but without reading the sequel I can't be sure.

It sounds like you're asking for our permission.

Do it, Anne. Do it. DO IT.

Heather Harper said...

I'm curious to know what your editor would think.

I say do what you feel comfortable with.

For me, I wouldn't hate you if you killed him. But I'd probably prefer you didn't. It is difficult to cope with the death of a character I care about. But I would read it regardless.

Sonya said...

I believe in your writerly skills. If you feel the death is a necessary closure -- do it. It won't be the story it has to be, if you go against what you know has to happen.

The choice is painful (oh, lord, how I know. I have to kill someone very important to me, very soon, and I really REALLY don't want to do that, but the story needs it). Do what your story needs.

(And on the other side -- you are awesome for caring about what your readers think. I'd say your readers trust you, as evidenced by the comments here!)

anne frasier said...

daniel -- lol! i'm wondering if guys have less of a problem with this.

heather -- i will definitely talk to my editor about it. it's one of those things where there is no good solution. death would make the story feel more complete, but i think it might also alienate a large number of readers. maybe i should just stop with book 2.

sonya -- thanks for the vote of confidence. :) and i do care about what readers think. i want the experience to be satisfying for them. i don't want them to close the book with a negative feeling about it.

but it's very possible the story won't even be picked up, so i'm getting ahead of myself. it depends on sales figures for PI and order numbers for garden of darkness. i'd like to write a third book because i like the characters and setting, but i wouldn't have a problem moving on to something else either.

Bernita said...

As a rule, I don't care for killing off the main character.
Anything after that, as in a series, always seems flat and epiloguey.
However, if it is the final book in a series, it might seem... inevitable, complete in some way.

anne frasier said...

bernita, i agree about a series that continues after the death. i like what you said about a final book.

Anne McAllister said...

One of the things I like about reading is re-reading. And I won't reread a book in which a character I've invested a lot in gets killed off.

As for completing the character arc, I can see your point, but think about the fact that if you let him live then you haven't got a nice neat arc, perhaps, but you do have a spiral in which things have moved forward and are, God forbid, possibly (just maybe) a bit more positive in the end. I know, bummer.

Anne

flip said...

I hate when a main character gets kill. I have friend who is still mad that two minor characters were killed in a sequel by Marsha Canham. She still gripes about it when she talks about the book. In The River King, Alice Hoffmann killed a main character, in whom I was very emotionally invested. It took me weeks to recover. I love Alice Hoffmann. I love her stories,her characters.Her style of writing is a pleasure to read, but I ration myself.Can' handle the emotional kick in my gut he sometimes gives me.

anne frasier said...

hi flip!

thanks for your input! i know many readers get really upset when a main character is killed. well, i've found out there isn't going to be a third book in the pale immortal series, so i don't have to worry about killing or not killing. i haven't read alice hoffman in years, but i always loved her. i have the river king, but haven't read it!