Authors Answer 111 – Killing Off Main Characters

Sometimes, main characters die. While reading, maybe your favourite character dies. Doesn’t feel good, does it? Do you go into mourning? Do you cry? But what if the author is killing the main character? How do they feel?

320px-Modern-ftn-pen-cursiveQuestion 111: How do you (or would you) feel when you kill a main character?

H. Anthe Davis

First, I laugh maniacally.  Second, I think of how my beta readers (and then my actual readers) will take it.  Then I laugh maniacally again, while trying to figure out how best to defend myself from irate friends/coworkers/fans.  …Seriously, I kill a lot of characters.

C E Aylett

Well, that depends on who the main character is. If you mean a protag, I don’t think I’ve ever killed one yet. A main character that isn’t a protag, yes, I have. Love killing off the villains — but that’s because they are so horrible! I really make them deserve it. There’s definitely a lot of ‘Take that you F**ker!’ when I’m writing those scenes. Ahem.

Beth Aman

I’ve only killed one main character so far, and it was fantastic.  Her death is a very emotional moment for the other characters, and I loved playing with words and feelings and denial and darkness.  The scene makes me cry whenever I read it.  Emotionally-charged scenes are just cool to write, so I enjoyed it.  A lot.

D. T. Nova

Tense, no matter what. I can’t stay relaxed when I know I’m about to write a death.

I have characters that I know I couldn’t kill off without feeling sad and probably a little guilty.

Eric Wood

I’m as emotionally stoic as my character. Only once did I write I write a story where I killed a character. Since I knew the outcome, I wrote the story accordingly to get that point of death. I felt as cold-hearted as the character who was to blame because I knew I was out to kill. Please don’t contact the FBI.

Jean Davis

Killing someone I’ve spent a lot of time with and formed an attachment to isn’t exactly fun. It can be emotionally exhausting to write. I recently killed a secondary character I’ve been writing for many years and two books. It was hard to write but I hope his death was worth it for the series as a whole.

Elizabeth Rhodes

I don’t usually feel hurt about it, as cold as that sounds. I worry more about getting the death right and making it meaningful. I doubt want to give the impression that I’m killing characters for the sake of being edgy, but I want it known that important people will have to die in the right circumstances.

Paul B. Spence

Ask Shadovsky. It feels like killing a part of myself. I have done it, will do it if the story calls for it, but I don’t like it when a main character dies for no good reason. I’ve thrown books across the room when reading for far less.

Cyrus Keith

I mourn. Honestly. I get attached to my main characters, and when I have to kill one, it’s like I’m losing a friend. I was so down after losing one in particular, I was down for two weeks.

Gregory S. Close

It feels terrible.  I wrote all of In Siege of Daylight without even admitting to myself which characters were likely to die, because I didn’t want to unconsciously telegraph my knowledge of their impending demise in the writing – and then I ended up killing even more just because that’s where the story led.

One minor character in particular met a brutal and sudden fate that I didn’t see coming.  I had plans for that character!  Interactions in my head!  A life planned!  And that’s why it felt more real.  If you only kill the obvious redshirts, then the death loses significance to the author and the reader.  Feeling terrible about it helps make it more genuine.  Maybe even more so than the demise of main characters, whose fates are largely bigger than life and tied into grander things.  It still feels terrible to kill a main character, but maybe the blow is softened a bit by its deeper connection to the narrative.

Hmmm.  I guess that makes the author Fate.  When I’ve fated a main character to die because of the PLOT, I have time to come to terms with it.  It’s written in the stars.  When I allow it to happen in the evolution of a scene, that’s more akin to happenstance.

Tracey Lynn Tobin

It depends on the character, for sure. I’ve killed off characters that didn’t affect me in the slightest – it just felt like an obvious  part of the story that needed to occur. On the other hand, I’ve killed off characters (or planned to kill of characters) that I’d gotten extremely attached to and it felt like a huge punch in the gut to do it. I like writing dramatic stuff, but sometimes a character starts to feel like a real person, and in those cases it can be extremely difficult to go through with a death.

Jay Dee Archer

If it’s a character I love, I’d probably feel awful about it. But on the other hand, I’d be curious about how my readers would react to it. IF it’s a character I hate, I’d probably feel wonderful and have a lot of fun writing the scene. There is a character I’m killing off soon in what I’m writing, and although he is a main character, his death is an important moment that will affect the direction of the story and the attitudes of the other characters. But how do I feel about it? I’m very curious about reactions. I don’t hate the character. I’d just always planned to have him die, so I’ve been trying not to become attached to him.

How about you?

If you’re an author, how do you feel when you kill off a main character? If you’re a reader, how do you feel when a main character is killed? Let us know in the comments below.

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12 thoughts on “Authors Answer 111 – Killing Off Main Characters”

  1. I feel sad/disappointed/discouraged/irritated/(pick an adjective) when a main character dies, depending on who the character is and the circumstances under which he or she died. I think the worst character death was written by Anthony Trollope in the Last Chronicle of Barset. That death still haunts me.

    1. It must have been well-done then, Sharon, for it to linger so.
      Personally, I get rather miffed when the dog ‘gets’ it. You know exactly when it’s coming, and it’s such a worn out old trope it just grates nowadays.

      1. Oh, yes, I know what you mean about the dog – I feel the same way. I think the dogs do to. I mean, why else does the dog make a point of exiting the saloon in “Shane?” It knows what’s coming and wants no part of it.

  2. As a reader, I don’t like it when a major character dies for no good reason, and I have nothing but disdain for writers who kill off characters merely to ‘prove they’re willing to do it.’

    As a writer, I don’t have any problem with allowing Bad Things to happen to characters when the story calls for it, but I much prefer the ‘worst thing that the character can SURVIVE’ approach recommended by Lois McMaster Bujold. Main ’em but don’t kill ’em permanently, y’know?

    I can also say that it’s not easy to EDIT a scene in which a favorite character is killed, even if the actual death happens mostly “off screen.”

  3. As a reader, I will put a book down and never pick it up again, read the rest of a series, or buy another book from that author if they start killing beloved characters.

    I read for escapism, not realism.

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