How to kill your protagonist… and survive

Writers enjoy a notable perk. When they write they’re like little gods. In their novels they can play with their characters’ lives. And indeed it’s a well known rule of thumbs the one suggesting that you throw at your protagonist all you can, to make their life as miserable as possible.

However, it’s also well known that great power carries with it great responsibility. As a result, the simple fact you can do whatever you want doesn’t necessarily entail you should do it.

For example, you can stuff your story with Deus ex machina devices. In this way any hole in your plot can be immediately repaired with minimum effort. But be prepared to hear your readers groan and have second thoughts about keep on reading…

You could also stuff you novel with extraneous material. A shopping list or the washing recommendations for your cashmere sweater–or even better, your plumber’s invoice. That would be great especially in a horror novel, given how expensive plumbers can be.

In short, almost invariably, doing something just because you can, ends up badly and is the glaring result of bad planning, foggy ideas, and shaky premises.

Kill your darlings

However, on some occasions certain choices, no matter how well planned, and thought out, will inevitably ruffle the feathers of some of your readers.

But that’s part of the game. After all, you cannot always please everyone. So, provided you’ve taken the time to consider your actions, go ahead and do what you think must be done.

For example, killing off the main protagonist of your story. That is a major decision. One that’s going to have a far reaching impact on your book.

To start with, if you’re writing a series and you’re not into supernatural stuff, you have to make that book the last one, at least chronologically speaking.

However, if you have a whole cast of different protagonists you can overcome such a limit. Just have a look at George R. R. Martin opus, The World of Ice and Fire. People die. And as a rule they don’t resurrect.

In most cases, killing off your main protagonist will shock your readers. For some of them this shock can be a huge turn-down. So huge indeed as to induce them to put your book down and never pick it up again.

However, this shocking move can also represent an effective way to bring your story to a whole new level. One were actions really matter. And where death is a presence as real as harsh.

The only thing you really need to be sure is that you’re not killing your protagonist just to shock your readers and try to keep them glued to the page. It isn’t in this way it works. What keeps your readers intrigued isn’t indiscriminate bombing, but micro-tension.

As for the more sinister dangers resulting from killing off your darlings, so to speak, you can read a classic par excellence: Misery by Stephen King.

Local balance Vs global balance

What really matters when you kill off one of your main characters isn’t the action in itself, though how they die has is importance too. What matters are the reasons behind your choice.

This means that you have to understand whether the fateful event you’ve planned for your character is actually required or is instead a premature, optional, or even outright idiotic move.

In general you probably can safely kill your protagonist if such an event:

  1. advances the plot in a meaningful and organic way.
  2. is the only way your protagonist can reach his or her goal.
  3. works as an example for others characters in the novel and spurs them to take action.
  4. is a sort of payback for the protagonist’s flaws.
  5. is a way to reinforce the theme of your story.
  6. as I said before, creates a stronger sense of realism. It makes the fictional world a lot less fictional, so to speak.
  7. takes off the board a no longer useful character. For example, Stephen King in The Stand managed to kill off several main characters. All at once.

Back to the playground

Even with the above list it isn’t always easy to be sure of the reasons that have led us to cook up the demise of our main character. However, you can consider the whole story as a see-saw.

You need to put weight on one of its ends to lift the opposite one. And then add weight on the lighter one to bring it back to the ground. If you keep adding weight alternatively to one and then to the other end, the see-saw will keep moving.

Ideally, all the scenes, all the decisions in your story, should serve the purpose of shifting the balance of your story, to create a constant dynamic tension. Of course some scenes are going to shift the balance only slightly, almost imperceptibly. Instead others are going to shatter such a balance in as shocking a way as possible.

Using this see-saw metaphor you might end up concluding that even if you have enough reasons to make the death of your main protagonist meaningful and organic its placement is all wrong. Because it comes too close immediately after a series of major shifts. Because it isn’t supported adequately by the story crescendo. Whatever.

Of course, this see-saw thing is just a figurative way of describing the process of vetting ideas and scenes. But at times having a visual cue of your creative processes can help you to better assess the overall effectiveness of the ideas you come up with.

Pictures: DirtyOpi – GellingerPexels

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