3 Reasons You Should Kill a Main Character

July 16, 2018

Have you ever finished reading a story and your response was meh? You didn’t hate it or love it—the story just existed. Have you ever read a story that was exactly what you expected after skimming the back cover? I have. I don’t reread those stories. When people sit down to read a book, they’re eager to be taken on a journey. When all the stops along the way are predictable, that journey feels more like a grocery run than an adventure.

 

Unpredictable stories are more than an original idea, flashy characters, and a fun plot thrown together. An unpredictable story must be written boldly. Most stories today aren’t bold because their endings mimic genre archetypes. The happy ending of the romance genre is the wedding, so the couple always gets together. The happy ending of the adventure genre is the completion of a quest, so the hero always defeats the villain.

 

I have nothing against happy endings. But clichéd endings are a problem. If readers can guess the story’s direction, they won’t be wowed at the end.

 

Adventure and speculative fiction authors have numerous clichés they could twist for a bold effect, but I want to address one in particular: keeping main characters alive. Main characters always survive. If they die, the story can’t have a happy ending, right? Wrong. A story can end well even after a tragic death. (Important note: Killing means the character is dead. None of this coming-back-to-life business.) I’ll list three reasons you should consider this tactic.

 

#1: Killing Increases Suspense

Stories sometimes feel like they’re neatly wrapped with a bow on top, and we’re sure that nothing bad will happen inside such wonderful packaging. When the story threatens disaster, we get on edge. But only a little. When the villain traps the hero in his clever scheme, we wonder how the hero will escape rather than worrying that he’s about to die. That’s a critical difference. The former engages the minds of puzzle-solvers and intellectuals, but the latter engages the hearts of readers.

 

How do you change readers’ perception? How do you convince them that catastrophes can occur in your book? You include terrible events early on. Let’s talk about Infinity War (but just the first scene, so only minor spoilers). The film opens with Thanos killing a powerful main character with his bare hands and beating two Avengers to a pulp, along with a few hundred civilians. That was a tone-setting scene. From that moment on, I was on the edge of my seat, literally and figuratively. If that main character could die, who might be next? If Thanos could handle two Avengers so easily, what chance did the squad have? And if they lost, how high were the stakes?

 

Do you want readers to sweat through your book? Then don’t pull punches. Even if you don’t kill characters, blindside your hero with trouble as soon as possible. Show readers that anything could happen.

 

#2: Killing Adds Meaning

The OYAN curriculum videos introduced me to the importance of a story having meaning. Mr. Schwabauer’s words have stuck with me through all my writing adventures: “A goal is worth what your hero is willing to pay for it.” If your hero achieves his goal without much personal loss, then the goal has little value, and your story will seem insignificant. It’ll be a romp about characters who had some exciting escapades and fulfilled their desires.

 

Yay.

 

That kind of story probably won’t grip or teach readers. Your story’s message will be linked (intentionally or unintentionally) to your hero’s goal. If the goal lacks worth, the message can be ignored too. You don’t want that.

 

Let’s say your story’s theme is forgiveness. Your villain did something awful to the hero when he was a child, and now the hero craves revenge. During the climax, the hero is about to stab the villain with a rapier, but in the pivotal moment, he decides not to.

 

How nice. That sort of ending is neither uncommon in Christian fiction nor poignant. The only cost to the forgiveness is the grudge the hero abandons. What if, instead of just forgiving the villain, the hero dies saving the villain? Not only would that prove the hero’s forgiveness is sincere but also that forgiveness is more important to him than his own life.

 

When a character readers love commits the ultimate sacrifice, that’s the deepest level of meaning you can accomplish in fiction. Readers can’t walk away without being impacted.

 

#3: Killing Deepens Realism

Last night I watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and though I enjoyed the show, a few scenes made me cringe. In one, Walter Mitty gets in a helicopter piloted by a man who is so drunk he can barely walk. Naturally, the flight goes without a hitch and everything turns out fine.

 

No.

 

A drunk person in a vehicle is a problem.

 

Needless to say, when Walter climbed the tallest mountain in the Himalayas alone with no previous experience and didn’t die, I wasn’t holding my breath. The movie wasn’t supposed to be an edge-of-your-seat thriller, so those errors were excusable, but they still took the adrenaline out of the story and made me roll my eyes.

 

Don’t allow that to happen in your story. When a man falls out of a train that’s speeding along a cliff, he dies. (Looking at you, Bucky.) Don’t cheat death or readers will feel cheated too.

 

Who Should You Kill?

Now that you understand the advantages of killing a main character (or two), who should you knock off? Is it luck of the draw? Not exactly. The victim will be different for every story. Since I can’t point to a character and say, “This one,” here are two quick tips to help you choose.

 

First, you need to kill someone readers expect to survive. You’re not strictly aiming for shock but trying to demonstrate that anything could happen. Don’t kill the old mentor or the boring ally or the parents. Kill someone readers assume will be in the story for the long haul. That’s how life works. We have no plans to die today.

 

Second, pick someone readers love. But be careful; if you eliminate their favorite character, they might slam the book shut. Want to learn how to avoid that fate? Return in a few weeks and I’ll explain how to execute a character without ruining your novel or enraging readers.

43 Comments

  1. Christine Eaton

    Loved this article! I enjoyed your reading of it too, Grace!

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Yeah, Grace is good at what she does. Go her!

    • Grace Livingston

      Aww thanks, guys! This one was an absolute blast to record. 😀

  2. Daeus Lamb

    Yes! Someone finally legitimizes my existence.

    Looking forward to your next article, Brandon.

    Reply
    • Daeus Lamb

      (I especially like your point that none of use expect to die out of the blue. Really, if you look at it that way, shocking deaths have a really important role then.)

    • Brandon Miller

      All main characters hate you as well as me. We’re a good team.

  3. Hannah

    This is great. At first I thought you meant to kill your POV character (which has its place, but only VERY rarely and VERY carefully.) But you’re right about The Avengers… Now the stakes for the last movie are unbearably high, because now we know that literally anything is possible, based on the ending. I’ll keep this article in mind in my writing! Thank you!

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Yeah, POVs are harder to kill believably. I can’t wait for the next movie!

  4. Coralie

    Another one for the wall! I LOVE this article! Such excellent points and I’ve been contemplating a death in my WIP and this gave me some things to ponder in why I am contemplating her death. Super looking forward to your next article cause I am struggling with the how!

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      You must have a big wall.
      😛
      (But thanks!)
      I feel like I’m a serial killer consultant or something. Everybody waiting around for me to tell them how to kill their next victim.

      Dear NSA: this is all just fiction. Honest to goodness.

    • Coralie

      @brandon-miller Haha, I hang lots of things on my walls. Some pictures, but usually more…unusual things like articles and poetry and jewelry and scissors…XD
      HAH! XD

  5. Grace

    Thanks for this article! It actually sent me down the road of considering how to heighten the stakes and make my heroine sacrifice all she’s got… and somewhere in the process, I nailed my WIP’s setting and premise, which was a major encouragement for me in a story that has been kind of dead for the past few months. So even though I don’t plan to murder my MC anytime in the future, thanks!

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Well… cool!
      And nobody had to even die!

  6. Kat Ingalls

    *evil laugh* I just killed my MC at the end of a short story!! IT WAS AMAZING XD XD Specially because I had all my writing friends yelling at me and sending me a million crying faces. And you get that feeling of ‘wow.. I am awfully evil’ then shrug and laugh saying ‘well, i’m a writer’ XD 😉

    Reply
    • Chalice

      Ah! That sounds horrible! Makes me want to read it. 🙂

      I’ve been kind of struggling with killing an MC (actually THE MC) in one of my stories. I don’t want my story to end up being a tragedy, but this character pretty much has to die. 🙁

  7. Kate Flournoy

    Yes. All the yes. My life choices have been justified. XD

    Looking forward to the next article.

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      The more I’m reading these comments, the more I’m realizing that I have the blood of many characters on my hands.

    • Kate Flournoy

      *dubiously evil chuckling*

  8. Wonderland7

    This is great! I have always struggled with killing off characters in my stories. But now, after reading this, I’m actually wondering who I should kill, where I can fit it in the story, and how I should go about doing it! XD

    Thanks for writing this article! So good to know that my characters’ deaths won’t be in vain. ;P

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      *death toll increases*
      Thanks for reading!

  9. Victory M.

    This is great, Brandon! Thank you and I’m looking forward to the next part of this=)

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      All the implied spoilers for Beta Sun… 😛 And now whenever I read one of your death scenes I’ll wonder, “Is this my doing?”

  10. Catherine

    As a bookworm, I’ve felt this way countless times before. I have dropped many book ratings because the characters seem invincible. This article definitely gave me some things to contemplate as a writer as well. Looking forward to the next one.

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Yes. Yes yes and yes. Books… let people die.
      Okay, I’ve ranted enough. Thanks for reading and sympathizing.

  11. Heather

    WOW! So cool! I cannot wait for the next part of the article to come out!
    I always have trouble killing off main characters because it feels cliché, but if I don’t kill them, its cliché that way too. UGH!

    Thanks so much! This is such a cool concept!

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Yeah, cliches aren’t fun. I hope part 2 helps with that!

  12. Sandrina

    Anyone who has read John J. Horn’s third book will know how it feels to be on the receiving end of a main character’s death!
    This was a brilliant article!
    I’m already contemplating who to kill…
    And I might have to rethink the mentor\parent death…
    When will the next article be?! I can’t wait!

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Heh, my brother read those and was not pleased. (He loved them though.)

    • Sandrina

      Same here!

  13. mayajt

    I love this article. Especially since I’m killing a lot of main characters in my WIP. At least 4. It depends on how you define a MC. (I’ve always had too many characters anyway, so killing some might help my story along!)

    Reply
  14. A. Kaylee

    I just read this for the second time . . . Brandon, my MCs don’t appreciate it!

    Thank you for this post!

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      *hides behind internet*
      It wasn’t me.

  15. Elixa

    *Evil chuckle echoes from the corner* bye bye, MC…

    XD

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      uh oh
      It wasn’t me who gave you this idea, okay?

  16. Onika

    Whoa! Now I’m looking at all of my stories in a new light! Not that I’m going to go about smiting all my MCs left and right… yet. *heh-heh-heh…* But your article’s made me realize new ways to give my stories refreshing twists.
    Even the characters I had originally intended to live aren’t safe anymore.

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Don’t tell them it was my idea, okay? There is already enough blood on my hands as it is *scrollsthroughcomments*

    • Onika

      Don’t worry. It’ll all look like my fault. 😉

  17. Kelly Lundgren

    How did I miss this???

    I’m going to kill off my main character in my current WIP, even though it hurts me to do so- but this makes me feel a bit better about it. He’s willing to die for what he’s doing. Plus; if it hurts me it’ll definitely move my readers.

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Oh good. If it was already going to happen, it’s not on my conscience.
      😛

      Thanks for reading!

  18. Mary C.

    Brandon, this is an awesome article! Unfortunately for my MC it just solidified her lover’s death. I was already considering it very seriously, especially ever since I’ve had this in my bookmarks, but now it is solid. xD Not you fault, all my own just so you know. Completely my own. XD

    Is the second part out yet? : )

    Reply
    • Mary C.

      I found the second part, don’t worry. I was a little too lazy to scroll up and see when this was published.
      But both articles were very helpful!

  19. Kendra

    Killing main characters needs to happen more often. That may sound brutal, and my heart breaks as I say it (thinking of all the main characters I love and will defend with my own life if necessary), but it is very, very effective and helps make a book have more of an emotional impact. My favorite books are ones that, more often than not, make me cry.

    Great post!

    Reply

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