View Full Version : Character deaths.

09-08-2004, 10:48 PM
Spurred from a topic on the Novels Writing board, I came up with this question:

Is it more acceptable (from a reader's perspective) for a main character to be killed in a fantasy/sci-fi?

Thoughts? (;

09-08-2004, 11:45 PM
"Anybody can die at any moment."

I like books that make you worry about the fate of the characters. Multiple POV characters, no single dominant protagonist, everyone is at genuine risk.

It's exciting.

But I don't know if it's more acceptable or not.

09-09-2004, 01:58 AM
I don't think there's anything genre-related that makes it more or less acceptable to kill the main character. What matters is if you can pull it off without disappointing (or pissing off) the reader, not what kind of story you're writing.

I guess the one way it might be easier to pull off in fantasy or sci fi (not necessarily more acceptable, but easier to get away with) is that in those genres (and in horror) you can kill a character without him necessarily being entirely dead, if you know what I mean.

With regard to POV, Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity are a couple of very effective classic movies that are told from one POV, with a lot of first-person narration, that still kill the main character and get away with it.

09-09-2004, 03:56 AM
In a couple of sci fi books I read recently, Heechee Rendezvous by Frederik Pohl and Mother of Storms by John Barnes, the protagonists were killed (but not killed off) midway through the story. In both, the biological lives of the protagonists ended but their essense (soul?) lived on in electronic constructs.

I'm not sure it makes sense to write a story about the wants and problems of a character, leading the reader to identify and care for that character and then kill him/her/it off before the plot is complete. However, if such protagonist dies as a result of the climax, at the end of the story in other words, is perfectly acceptable. At least, I think so. I can't recall reading such a story, though. Anyone else here who has?

09-09-2004, 04:02 AM
I like books that make you worry about the fate of the characters. Multiple POV characters, no single dominant protagonist, everyone is at genuine risk. So do I. In fact, I'm writing one like that now. However, there is one of the characters who figures more prominently than any other, and it is her desires and problems about which the story revolves. Or, put another way, her problems--and the solution to them--are the vehicle I use to tell the story. If I were to try telling it from a completely omnicient pov, I'd be mired down in even more research than I have time for or am willing to expend energy on. ;) telling the story primarily through the eyes of an 'innocent' eliminates the need for extensive explanations of the science involved (and about which I have only surface knowledge anyway).

09-09-2004, 05:18 AM
However, if such protagonist dies as a result of the climax, at the end of the story in other words, is perfectly acceptable. At least, I think so. I can't recall reading such a story, though. Anyone else here who has?
That's exactly what happens to the protagonist in my first (still unpublished) novel. His death is the climax, but I leave the reader with a glimpse of his legacy, which I explore in the sequels I'm currently working on.

09-09-2004, 05:27 AM
I'm not sure it makes sense to write a story about the wants and problems of a character, leading the reader to identify and care for that character and then kill him/her/it off before the plot is complete.
Greg Bear's Blood Music does exactly this , and it's very effective.

09-09-2004, 06:14 AM
Killing off a main character partway through the story is tricky. There have been cases where it's been done effectively but there have been far more (to my recollection) where it hasn't.

Kerry or Bush - The lesser of two evils is still evil.

09-09-2004, 06:35 AM
Ah, then you'll either like or have problems with my soon-to-be-published book, Mark II, in which the main character dies in the first chapter.

Watch for it in a few months from Double Dragon Publishing.

09-09-2004, 01:28 PM
Kill the main character for a change.
...'cough cough, sputter sputter..', and I have but one last thing to say with my dying breath.....'go buy the sequel in which my death is avenged!..'

09-09-2004, 03:11 PM
I don't think it is more exceptable in fanasty, but it is more exceptable in books that use an ensemble of different characters rather than one main protagonist -- and perhaps fantasy used this sort of narrative more often?

09-09-2004, 09:52 PM
Good point, vein.

I was a little startled when I read the comments about character death in novels... of course now I don't remember which thread it was under, so I can't refer anyone.

One of the things I hate reading about, especially when it comes down to "good versus evil," etc, is that you know they're going to win and probably live, too.

Where's the mystery?

09-10-2004, 12:26 AM
Every no and again the trend is bucked (one of the few redeeming features of Blake's 7).

09-12-2004, 06:56 AM
Hmmm...depends on how you do it. I've read some books where it's understood at the beginning that the main protagonist is going to die at the climax (doing something heroic, sacrificing his/her/its life for the Good of Everything, etc.). The story can be a flashback.

Then there are the books that kill off the character somewhere in the middle, but their influence is still felt by the other characters, so that character isn't forgotten, even if they're not physically present.

Unexpected deaths can show great dramatic tension, but if it isn't written well, the reader feels cheated and that they've wasted their time.

It can help the story, as long as it's treated well, and not just a plot device to bolster a poor plot.


09-13-2004, 08:27 AM
I don't think the single main character can be killed off in the middle, unless there's some means of reviving them or giving them a different existence, but it can be effective if an important characters dies, because it makes the reader uneasy, thinking, if so-and-so can die, anyone can.

As far as the main character dying at the end is concerned, I thought at first there are loads of examples, but most of those are horror. I'm sure there are plenty, but one off the top of my head is King's Daughter by Jane Gaskell, which was published in the 60s, I think, when she was about 15, where the POV character dies at the very end, and the POV transfers to another character for the last page or so (3rd person POV, that is).

The thing about the sequel reminds me of the end of the film Hawk the Slayer, one of the first of the 80s fantasy films, where the chief baddy is killed, then the film ends with the Dark Lord coming for his body and saying something to the effect, Your usefulness to me is not over, I will make you live again. Just in time for Hawk the Slayer II, of course.

09-22-2004, 03:18 AM
I find in a *good* book where I feel invested in the main character I feel really let down when they die. I know my wife bawls when it happens in her particular genre of choice. If your reader is unhappy that you killed the main character, then you've done a good job at making them real. The most important thing is - is the death of this character critical to the plot? Is their death going to accomplish what you need it to in the immediate or later part of the story.

Do you want the reader to feel acute loss / sympathy for the death of the character, so that it carries through to justify the actions of another character or characters in the story?

Does it provide you an out or a plot device for later on?

Just some things that come to mind... mebbe I'm just blowing smoke.



09-22-2004, 08:07 AM
Interesting you should mention that, NickDangr. I mentioned my book Mark II coming out in a few months. Interestingly enough, the story's premise involves the main character and some others dying. It's a case of what would you do if you were faced with a terrible disease that could cause you to unexpectedly go violently beserk and possibly kill people around you just before you die. Would you commit suicide or have yourself isolated and quarantined? Or would you take a different alternative of dying in order to have your mind's memories and conscious sentience transferred to an individual repository that would then permit you to move around as a sentient mechanical being?

Anyway, sometimes death in a story is necessary.

09-22-2004, 09:01 AM
The questions with which you face your character involve a lot of deep personal issues - religion, philosophy, intellectualism... does the character believe their sentience can be transferred to a nonliving device... can one experience life as a construct of metal versus organic material.

I remember an RPG I played years back (cyberpunk) that included a premise wherein the more machinelike you became, the less humane / human sympathetic you became... interesting ideas... raised interesting questions.

Best of luck with the book!

Flawed Creation
09-24-2004, 05:34 AM
in my WIP, the protagonist is dead on page one.

the surviviors begin to tell his story. each from different points of view. they don't always agree, either. at the end it flashes forward to the presetn again, as their lives move on.

09-24-2004, 05:45 AM
they don't always agree, either
This part especially shows promise, Flawed. Good luck with it.

09-24-2004, 09:18 AM
Sounds like a new take on "Rashomon."

XThe NavigatorX
09-29-2004, 04:19 AM
I'm a big fan of killing people in literature.

If you're following George R. R. Martin's series, you'll see (read) a fine example of how to randomly kill off main characters and keep the plot moving.

Flawed Creation
09-29-2004, 06:29 AM

09-29-2004, 08:17 AM
Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece. There have been many different "versions" -- Courage Under Fire with Meg Ryan, Iron Maze with Bridget Fonda, etc.

It's a story told from different points of view, each different and you don't know who is lying and who is telling the truth. The main character in the story is already dead...

09-29-2004, 09:55 AM
Navigator, I'm a big fan of Martin's latest series.

I just wish he'd get it finished.:)

XThe NavigatorX
09-29-2004, 11:42 AM
No sh#t. I vowed to never again begin reading a series until it's finished, and I keep doing it. :head

Flawed Creation
09-30-2004, 06:31 AM
ah- i'll have to check it out. i've liked kurosawa's works that i've seen so far.

Flawed Creation
10-12-2004, 09:42 AM
i've killed the thread!

and it was so interesting!

maybeif i bump it...

11-12-2004, 11:01 PM
In my novels that are making the rounds with my agent, I have written them as tapestries and ensemble acts with a central, rather than a main, character and have given all of them equal (or nearly equal) time. And, yes, I have killed off several of the central characters and kept going.

I think that Martin is brilliant and would like to see more of this type of writing. Good fiction should not be dependant on a single character the way that it was in the past.

So long as the rest of the characters can carry the reader's interest, continue their emotional involvement with the story, and the slain character's death had a purpose beyond bathos, you have a story that works. Imo.

Flawed Creation
11-17-2004, 07:40 AM
what size of an ensemble are we talking? i've seen books with more than 1 protagonist, but never more than 4 four characters sharing equal space.

any more than that, i think, and it would become unclear what was important, and the plot would get too long, complicated, and bogged down.

that said, i have 11 major characters in the only novel complete enough for me to be able to tell, but only 2 or 3 could be considered protagonists.

Flawed Creation
11-19-2004, 08:31 AM
interestingly, the movie Rashomon was based on a short story by a japnese author whose name I forget, but that story was called "in the garden", IIRC. that author wrote another story, called "Rashomon", and the movie took that name and the other plot.

EDIT: the stories are by Akutagawa Ryunosuke, and the story is called "In a grove", i think. i'm currently attempting to read it in the original japanese.

11-25-2004, 05:30 PM
Four major threads of characters come together in one of my novels, each group getting nearly equal time starting around the middle. The core group is eleven characters when you add in each skein of the yarn. It's about four groups of refugees who eventually come together in order to survive their flight from the reaches of a large war that is breaking out. :hat