There are many reasons writers decide to kill off their protagonist. The trick is to do it for the right reasons and in a way that won’t make the reader stomp off in a huff. If you’re a writer considering doing away with the main character (MC) in your short story or novel, we’ve got a few tips to keep in mind.
In 1893, thousands of English readers canceled their subscription to The Strand when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle simply was tired of the series and wanted to move on to other things. He was a little surprised by his readers’ outrage, and, eventually, he succumbed to public pressure and resurrected the beloved detective in The Hound of the Baskervilles.
When Tony Soprano was killed in the season finale of The Sopranos—well, we’re assuming he was whacked, as the tension built and the screen suddenly went black—the audience had no choice but to accept it. The series was over. And the final scene (or lack thereof) packed a serious punch.
Alice Sebold took a different—and highly successful—approach to killing off her main character. In The Lovely Bones, her protagonist and narrator is a young girl who has just been murdered, and she comments on the events that happen after her death:
“These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections—sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent—that happened after I was gone. And I began to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it.”
If you’re considering killing off your main character, keep the following tips in mind:
- Be somewhat realistic. It may be hard to swallow if your main character survives what no one should be able to. When a jumbo jet crashes in the desert but your hero, Jack, walks away unscathed thanks to his skill with a nail file and a soda can, you can practically hear your readers groan.
- Plot problems. Don’t kill the protagonist if you are having problems with the storyline and simply don’t know what to do next: The heroine finds herself between an enraged grizzly and a cliff—if you can’t figure out a plausible way to extricate her, this shouldn’t be the only reason to kill her off.
- Beware morality statements. Perhaps your main character’s death is a natural consequence of his fatal flaw. He is a functioning alcoholic and sometimes drinks and drives. Be very careful not to make this into a morality statement by waving it over your readers’ heads: This is what happens to drunk drivers! You want the story to be powerful, not your personal statement on drunk driving.
- Don’t kill the MC off in a trivial or anticlimactic way. In other words, unless it’s tied to the theme or plot in some significant way, Hattie Heroine should not die from an infected paper cut. If we’ve invested in her character, we need some tension building up to her death.
- Avoid resurrections. Please don’t be tempted to miraculously bring a main character back to life unless it’s an integral part of your plot or theme (like a medical thriller centered around a miraculous new drug that reverses death). What? It was actually Hattie Heroine’s twin sister who died of infection? Like an ending where the MC wakes up and realizes everything was just a dream, a miraculous resurrection can be a little cheesy—or an easy out.
As a writer, consider the impact your protagonist’s death will have on your audience. There’s a fine line between a meaningful ending and ticking off your readers. Your reader has invested emotionally in your main character, so make sure it’s important or relevant that he/she be killed off—and preferably not death by paper cut.