Readers become angry with the killing of a character

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K Robert Donovan

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I have killed a major character and some readers are angry about it.
So a little background - I am writing a light fantasy medieval novel (a 3-5 book series) with a current word count of 231K (I know, I need to do a lot of cutting). The last chapter ends with a major female character meeting her demise in a violent manner. I have a few developmental readers who are angry and upset that I killed off the character. The story is character driven and the readers become invested in some of the main characters. My purpose for killing the character is to be unpredictable. I don't want the protagonist arriving in the nick of time to save the fair maiden. In this case, he arrives too late, the town is in ashes, and the "fair maiden" is dead. Two developmental readers are both trying to talk me into saving her but I can't help notice that they are both woman and probably sympathize with the female character that I killed. Adding to it, I killed a few other relatable characters in the closing chapters and the book ends on a very sad note. BUT... I still have plenty of other characters living, including the main protagonist and antagonist along with another major strong female character.

What to do? It feels right killing the female character that the two readers complain about, but I don't want to leave it so that my readers are mad and don't want to continue reading. One reader told me that it took her four days to come to terms with the loss of the character I killed. She finally stated that she wants to know that good will rise in the end and wants to move forward with the second book (book 2 is still in concept stage - too busy working the edits on book 1).

Thoughts? I just don't want a cookie cutter - "happily ever after" ending to book 1, but I don't want to alienate readers either. I want to the read left with a sad feeling but still wishing to move on to the next book.
 

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My purpose for killing the character is to be unpredictable.

This may be your problem. If the book was "saving the good guys" until the point where you let one die, I could imagine it felt very much like a violation to your readers. You can knock off major characters, but if you're violating the tone of the rest of the story, you're going to annoy people.

Two developmental readers are both trying to talk me into saving her but I can't help notice that they are both woman and probably sympathize with the female character that I killed.

I may be off-base here, but this tweaks my spidey sense just a smidge. Female readers don't automatically sympathize with female characters, but we may be on the lookout for superfluous deaths written to provide depth and meaning to male characters.

Thoughts? I just don't want a cookie cutter - "happily ever after" ending to book 1, but I don't want to alienate readers either. I want to the read left with a sad feeling but still wishing to move on to the next book.

You will never please every reader. What does the story want?
 

K Robert Donovan

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This may be your problem. If the book was "saving the good guys" until the point where you let one die, I could imagine it felt very much like a violation to your readers. You can knock off major characters, but if you're violating the tone of the rest of the story, you're going to annoy people.

Well, there are multiple purposes; the death in question is also a defeat or failure of the main protagonist. He faced a choice of zigging to save one or zagging to save the other. He zigged hoping to have time for the other. But he also wasn't aware of how desperate the situation was with the female character. Note - she was also the main protagonist's love interest, thus making the loss even more bitter.
 

pharm

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It does sound like you are explicitly using one character as an instrumentality for another character’s development. I can understand why a reader who liked the former character would be angry about that. Given that it’s a woman who is the love interest of a man, and dying for his narrative benefit, this may not be so subversive a turn on the trope as you seem to think it is.
 

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Um, yeah--I'm with lizmonster about getting an uncomfortable feeling that this death is kind of there to forward the plot for the main male character. There's kind of a history of this in SFF lierature and television; try googling "disposable woman" or even just "killing a female character", and you'll see why alarm bells are going off.
 

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Well, there are multiple purposes; the death in question is also a defeat or failure of the main protagonist. He faced a choice of zigging to save one or zagging to save the other. He zigged hoping to have time for the other. But he also wasn't aware of how desperate the situation was with the female character. Note - she was also the main protagonist's love interest, thus making the loss even more bitter.

You have fridged her. It's not verboten to do this sort of thing (I fridge a guy's mom on page 5 of my first book), but you may want to do a little reading to understand the trope and why it might have annoyed your readers.
 

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Yes, I might venture that a female reader might have thought the love interest was being "fridged" -- killed off in order to serve the male character's development arc. Without reading it myself, though, I couldn't say.

Here's a thought. Why not just have the female character disappear, so her fate is unknown?
 

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I think deaths of major viewpoint characters can work, but they need to serve a stronger purpose than simply being unpredictable. The death needs to accomplish something, or at least make a certain amount of narrative sense. There are exceptions, perhaps, in subgenres like grimdark, where things are supposed to be kind of depressing and to deconstruct traditional optimistic tropes, but you described your story as "light" fantasy. Light fantasy would attract a different kind of reader and set up different expectations. Readers may not like the feeling that they've been led down a given path, with certain expectations, then been "fooled" by the writer.

It's a tough line to walk, because good fiction does deliver surprises and sometimes subvert expectations, but I think the hints that an "unexpected" twist is possible need to be there in advance, so the reader can look back and think, "Okay, this was foreshadowed, wasn't it?"

I may be off-base here, but this tweaks my spidey sense just a smidge. Female readers don't automatically sympathize with female characters, but we may be on the lookout for superfluous deaths written to provide depth and meaning to male characters.

Lizmonster makes a good point here too. Female characters aren't going to identify with or love every female character any more than male characters are going to identify with and love every male character. And we can certainly identify with characters of any gender (as, I hope, can men). But women readers may well (and certainly should be, imo) sensitive to female characters being presented only through a male gaze or simply as plot devices for male characters.

Well, there are multiple purposes; the death in question is also a defeat or failure of the main protagonist. He faced a choice of zigging to save one or zagging to save the other. He zigged hoping to have time for the other. But he also wasn't aware of how desperate the situation was with the female character. Note - she was also the main protagonist's love interest, thus making the loss even more bitter.


There is nothing new or subversive about this plot element, which may be the problem. Google the "women in refrigerators" and "disposable women" trope to see what I mean.

And it's not just with women, but many readers have issues characters from underrepresented demographics (people who have been token characters and/or offered up as sacrificial lambs in countless books) being killed gratuitously, especially if they are the only character from that demographic in your story. If you just killed off the only important female character to create a problem for a male character, this is likely the issue.

And as a woman, I have to say I much prefer it when female characters can rescue themselves and/or do some of the rescuing of others, whether or not a male main character is in love with them.

I suppose you have to think about who you expect to be buying your books. If you are writing only for a male audience (not sure if this is advisable these days, as many, possibly most, fantasy readers are female), then what your female beta readers think might be inconsequential. Otherwise, it might be good to pick their brains more to get at why specifically this death bothered them.
 
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Woollybear

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I have killed a major character and some readers are angry about it.
So a little background - I am writing a light fantasy medieval novel (a 3-5 book series) with a current word count of 231K (I know, I need to do a lot of cutting). The last chapter ends with a major female character meeting her demise in a violent manner. I have a few developmental readers who are angry and upset that I killed off the character. The story is character driven and the readers become invested in some of the main characters. My purpose for killing the character is to be unpredictable. I don't want the protagonist arriving in the nick of time to save the fair maiden. In this case, he arrives too late, the town is in ashes, and the "fair maiden" is dead. Two developmental readers are both trying to talk me into saving her but I can't help notice that they are both woman and probably sympathize with the female character that I killed. Adding to it, I killed a few other relatable characters in the closing chapters and the book ends on a very sad note. BUT... I still have plenty of other characters living, including the main protagonist and antagonist along with another major strong female character.

What to do? It feels right killing the female character that the two readers complain about, but I don't want to leave it so that my readers are mad and don't want to continue reading. One reader told me that it took her four days to come to terms with the loss of the character I killed. She finally stated that she wants to know that good will rise in the end and wants to move forward with the second book (book 2 is still in concept stage - too busy working the edits on book 1).

Thoughts? I just don't want a cookie cutter - "happily ever after" ending to book 1, but I don't want to alienate readers either. I want to the read left with a sad feeling but still wishing to move on to the next book.

My first two thoughts are that you used the strong female as a prop, to kill her ultimately, in order 'to be unpredictable.' If that is her main role in your story (to be a snuff), I'd rethink how she can be tweaked.

And, the arrival of the MC should come with some 'reward' to the reader. If it isn't to save the girl, (which is a bad goal to my way of thinking anyway, she should get herself out of that scrape,) then another advancement should be reached. I don't mean like a positive outcome, I mean like a progression in the story that is meaningful. Not sure this part is making sense, but hopefully by the end it will.

My third thought is that it is fine to kill a main character if the reader expects it at some level. In the TV show 'The 100' they kill main characters left and right, and it's refreshing. But, they didn't start with a top dog. They worked their way up. There are lots of ways to prepare your audience and still be 'refreshing'... but pulling a rug out from underneath your readers might not work.

All of this gets at setting reader expectations, and the idea that if something is wrong in your book, the problem is earlier in your book.
 
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Woollybear

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I may be off-base here, but this tweaks my spidey sense just a smidge. Female readers don't automatically sympathize with female characters, but we may be on the lookout for superfluous deaths written to provide depth and meaning to male characters.


+1 to this.
 

K Robert Donovan

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Thank you all for your input and insight - this is the reason I joined the site - to learn, share ideas, listen to other perspectives, and do the best I can to improve my craft.

You've given me much to think about.
 

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Once upon a time, I was watching a particular humorous sports show that dealt with the ghost of someone who had committed suicide a thousand years previously, who befriended a modern-day kid, and the Story Happens. About 60-something episodes into the series, the spirit finds his peace, and is able to continue his journey into the afterlife, because not only had he been redeemed, but he had been kept in the world to accomplish a task. The kid, in the meantime, is ignorant of what went on... all he knows is that all of a sudden, his friend was missing.

I was so mad. And I was surprised at how mad I was, because duh, the guy was dead to start with--- and had been dead for a thousand years--- but now he was gone beyond where we could see him. Even while I was doing it, I was going through all the stages of grief--- denial, anger, depression, and so on, until I was finally able to move on to watch the next bit.

Whenever I rewatch something from that series, I always make sure to avoid that episode. :)

But I always remembered those feelings whenever I write--- you can stir up very visceral reactions when you get rid of someone that readers (or watchers) have bonded with. And so you'd better have a really good reason, not just because you can. And if you do it, you need to be consistent with your genre, because if someone's watching a humorous sports-related show, they're not wanting to veer off for five or ten episodes of gut-wrenching drama and cry over the plot twist.

So, you're writing light fantasy. Why are well-loved characters dying violent deaths in light fantasy? Does that take a reader out of the story enough to get mad at you for taking a wrong turn? Do you want people to throw your book at the wall, either literally or figuratively, because you just did something that upset them for the sake of upsetting them?

You want to be unpredictable. Falling outside your genre is unpredictable... like having an episode of Sesame Street suddenly turn into an episode of CSI, or having an episode of Doctor Who turn into an episode of Rehab Addict. But that doesn't mean it's a strong story or good writing or that your readers will think you're clever. If you want to surprise people with your story, do something that will surprise them in a positive way, not in a mad-at-you kind of way.

Sometimes, when you have a decent-sized cast, the person we liked enough to make the protagonist isn't necessarily the one that our readers like as much as we do. So just because someone is a secondary character doesn't mean they can be sacrificed for Reasons, and the reader will sigh and be sad for a moment and wonder how on earth Main Character X is going to get on with life, even if that's what we intended for them to do. Readers read things through their own filters, and react based on their own experiences. If someone needs to be dead for Reasons, and you're writing something light, you might look at putting that death in the past, and X deals with it in the present--- but all the Bad Stuff happened long ago, and there's nothing anyone could do. (I'm looking at you, all the dead parents out there...) Of course, since you're 231k words into things... it's a little late for that. :)
 

K Robert Donovan

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I may be off-base here, but this tweaks my spidey sense just a smidge. Female readers don't automatically sympathize with female characters, but we may be on the lookout for superfluous deaths written to provide depth and meaning to male characters.
Excellent point - I only made the observation because, based on conversation, I think one of my readers became especially attached to Female #2 and was heartbroken when she was killed. Regarding "fridging" - I've killed off seven other male characters, one a main character, and female #2 was the first female death and her demise came after all the others.
 

K Robert Donovan

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So, you're writing light fantasy. Why are well-loved characters dying violent deaths in light fantasy? Does that take a reader out of the story enough to get mad at you for taking a wrong turn? Do you want people to throw your book at the wall, either literally or figuratively, because you just did something that upset them for the sake of upsetting them?
I believe I have misused the term Light Fantasy - My apologies. I intended to mean that I have no dragons, monsters, or heavy magic included in the material.
 

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Fridging isn’t just about the death itself. It’s about the reason for and context of the death. You’re always treading tricky waters when you kill an MC or a developed SC just to further another’s story. Those waters get even trickier when it’s a woman dying for the sake of her male love interest’s arc. Tropes are not inherently bad — tropes are just recurring narrative tendencies — but this particular trope has such a troubled (and overused) history it should probably only be employed by someone who’s taken the time to understand that history and weigh other options carefully.

That’s not to say you can’t do it, or that it can’t be done well. Ultimately you get to decide what you want to write, of course. Folks here are just trying to point out what the reader you mentioned might be thinking, and why.
 
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BethS

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I have killed a major character and some readers are angry about it.
So a little background - I am writing a light fantasy medieval novel (a 3-5 book series) with a current word count of 231K (I know, I need to do a lot of cutting). The last chapter ends with a major female character meeting her demise in a violent manner. I have a few developmental readers who are angry and upset that I killed off the character. The story is character driven and the readers become invested in some of the main characters. My purpose for killing the character is to be unpredictable.

Welll...maybe you need more of a reason than that. Are there good story reasons for doing this? IOW, what will the impact of this death be? Will some of the characters mourn and then get on with their lives and that's it? What about the guy who didn't arrive in time to save her life? What effect will this have on him? How will it change him, and therefore change what happens in his future?

There needs to be strong cause-and-effect. A lot of readers were shocked and disappointed at the death of Eddard Stark near the end of the first volume of Game of Thrones, but Martin didn't do that just for shock value. It's the one act that broke the story wide open. Nothing was ever the same again.

So what does this break open, or just plain break, in your story? IMO, if you're going to kill off a major character, it needs to matter to the story.
 
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lonestarlibrarian

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I believe I have misused the term Light Fantasy - My apologies. I intended to mean that I have no dragons, monsters, or heavy magic included in the material.

Ah! Gotcha. Low fantasy? (In contrast with, say, high fantasy?)
 

K Robert Donovan

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My first two thoughts are that you used the strong female as a prop, to kill her ultimately, in order 'to be unpredictable.' If that is her main role in your story (to be a snuff), I'd rethink how she can be tweaked.

And, the arrival of the MC should come with some 'reward' to the reader. If it isn't to save the girl, (which is a bad goal to my way of thinking anyway, she should get herself out of that scrape,) then another advancement should be reached. I don't mean like a positive outcome, I mean like a progression in the story that is meaningful. Not sure this part is making sense, but hopefully by the end it will.

My third thought is that it is fine to kill a main character if the reader expects it at some level. In the TV show 'The 100' they kill main characters left and right, and it's refreshing. But, they didn't start with a top dog. They worked their way up. There are lots of ways to prepare your audience and still be 'refreshing'... but pulling a rug out from underneath your readers might not work.

All of this gets at setting reader expectations, and the idea that if something is wrong in your book, the problem is earlier in your book.

I have developed three strong female characters. The one who met her demise would take the #2 role behind another strong female who carries much more attention in the book and is far more central to the plot. But I am listening to my readers (I have 7 developmental readers in all) and am sensitive to the fact that at least two of them are ticked off that I killed female #2.

I do think that I was of the mindset of what you shared with the show "The 100". I intended all along that there would be deaths. All told, I have killed two major characters, five medium characters, and a couple minor ones. And yes, I realize that I incorrectly used the term "Light Fantasy".

I also have written based on feedback provided early on in my efforts. Someone close to me read my early material and, being brutally honest, told me my MC was too strong. I needed faults, weaknesses, and defeats to make him more realistic. So, in the closing chapters of the book, the MC had just come off two victories and I felt he was due for a defeat, hence the loss of someone he cared for. There was additional purpose to the death in that it orphans another main character which was intended all along. Also the death of Female #2 only heightens an already existing desire for vengeance.
 

K Robert Donovan

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Welll...maybe you need more of a reason than that. Are there good story reasons for doing this? IOW, what will the impact of this death be? Will some of the characters mourn and then get on with their lives and that's it? What about the guy who didn't arrive in time to save her life? What effect will this have on him? How will it change him, and therefore change what happens in his future?

There needs to be strong cause-and-effect. A lot of readers were shocked and disappointed at the death of Eddard Stark near the end of the first volume of Game of Thrones, but Martin didn't do that just for shock value. It's the one act that broke the story wide open. Nothing was ever the same again.

So what does this break open, or just plain break, in your story? IMO, if you're going to kill off a major character, it needs to matter to the story.

There is a strong reason. The other central/main character of the story needs to be orphaned. The death of Female #2 accomplishes that task.
 

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Someone close to me read my early material and, being brutally honest, told me my MC was too strong. I needed faults, weaknesses, and defeats to make him more realistic. So, in the closing chapters of the book, the MC had just come off two victories and I felt he was due for a defeat, hence the loss of someone he cared for.

It's all in the execution, of course, but your description is still making me wonder if her entire reason for existing (and dying) is to complicate your male MC. Even if it isn't - if it can be read that way, I'm not surprised you have a few betas making different suggestions. You might want to consider some less stereotypical ways of giving your male MC some depth and nuance.

Also, not meaning to pick on you specifically, but I'd love to retire the term "strong female character." Nobody ever says "strong male character." I don't even know what "strong female character" means.
 

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I have developed three strong female characters. The one who met her demise would take the #2 role behind another strong female who carries much more attention in the book and is far more central to the plot. But I am listening to my readers (I have 7 developmental readers in all) and am sensitive to the fact that at least two of them are ticked off that I killed female #2.

I do think that I was of the mindset of what you shared with the show "The 100". I intended all along that there would be deaths. All told, I have killed two major characters, five medium characters, and a couple minor ones. And yes, I realize that I incorrectly used the term "Light Fantasy".

I also have written based on feedback provided early on in my efforts. Someone close to me read my early material and, being brutally honest, told me my MC was too strong. I needed faults, weaknesses, and defeats to make him more realistic. So, in the closing chapters of the book, the MC had just come off two victories and I felt he was due for a defeat, hence the loss of someone he cared for. There was additional purpose to the death in that it orphans another main character which was intended all along. Also the death of Female #2 only heightens an already existing desire for vengeance.

It's possible the reader response comes down to the romance angle between these two characters. I was surprised how many of my readers (both male and female) wanted my male lead to have a love interest. They didn't care where it was, and they ended up being surprised it wasn't who they expected it to be, but many expected there'd be something lovey-dovey somewhere in the story. Not all readers wanted this, by the way, and someone up-thread pointed out you can't please everyone anyway, which is true as well.

But if you develop a love interest, this seems to come with its own messy set of rules. I'm certain if I killed my MC's love interest off, they'd scream 'foul' at me. The response to your character's death might be different if she isn't a romance (or best friend or mentor) type, but a somewhat antagonizing colleague, for example.

I will say that when i find ways to address the issues my readers raise, usually the end result is better. But not all the issues they raise need to be addressed, in my amateur opinion.
 
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K Robert Donovan

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It's all in the execution, of course, but your description is still making me wonder if her entire reason for existing (and dying) is to complicate your male MC. Even if it isn't - if it can be read that way, I'm not surprised you have a few betas making different suggestions. You might want to consider some less stereotypical ways of giving your male MC some depth and nuance.

Also, not meaning to pick on you specifically, but I'd love to retire the term "strong female character." Nobody ever says "strong male character." I don't even know what "strong female character" means.

Lizmonster - I so much appreciate your input. And for the record, I do have a couple weak male characters in the book, one of which will carry a larger role in Book 2 and will have to discover some courage to navigate a difficult road.

I look forward to reading more of your input and guidance.
 

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And for the record, I do have a couple weak male characters in the book, one of which will carry a larger role in Book 2 and will have to discover some courage to navigate a difficult road.

I appreciate you sticking with me, especially since I get stuck on stuff like this, which is totally not your fault. :)

But I don't know what you mean by "weak male character" any more than I know what you mean by "strong female character." I get hung up because terms like "strong" and "weak" tend to be tied to heavily gendered stereotypes, especially in fantasy. If they're not meant that way, that's fine! But I suppose I'm looking for less abusable adjectives to use.
 

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re: faults, weaknesses, and defeats-- again, I know it's a bit late in the game, but look around and see what other creative ways people have brought weaknesses or flaws to their characters. Back in the mid-90's, I used to do PBEM's... and you bet that on the character sheets, 9 times out of 10, the first flaw that people would come up with is "they get mad when their friends get hurt". :)

So, in "Howl's Moving Castle", Sophie is a young woman--- but she gets cursed into old age. In Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan saga, the main character's parents have an assassination attempt upon them, involving chemical weapons--- and his mom is pregnant with him. They survive, but he suffers from brittle bones his entire life, and will never reach full adult height-- which is very difficult in a military culture. In Bujold's "Curse of Chalion", rather than being a young, inexperienced cliche hero, the main character was sold as a galley slave and has been broken and dehumanized by failure after failure, and is a shadow of himself when we first meet him.

If you want your character to have faults and weaknesses--- look at whatever he secretly has pride in, and take it away from him. If he relies on his strength, have him catch some sort of disease that robs him of his stamina. If he is proud of his good looks, have someone throw acid on his face, and have him deal with the insecurity of being ugly, and worry about whether his Love Interest will still love him even when it's painful for her to see him. If he takes pride in his quickness of thought, give him a concussion and make him go through his adventure in a fog, and he has trouble retaining critical information.

So, don't damage your character's psyche indirectly--- damage him up-close-and-personal, goshdarnit. :) Go find some atypical heroes in literature, and see why they succeed in standing out.
 

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