Murder in the First Draft (Killing a Main Character)


After my first bookSow The Wind, Reap the Whirlwind, was released, I got comments from people who were upset about the death of one of the central characters. I won’t go into detail (No spoilers!), but the messages were essentially along the line of “I can’t believe you killed __________!”  One friend called me in tears after reading that scene in the book.  

Obviously it’s rewarding for a writer, knowing a character resonated enough to elicit such a connection, and emotional response. (And I confess: after all the years since my first book was published, that death still brings tears for me as well, because it was inspired by real events.)

One of the readers who wrote to me asked: “How do I decide if I one of my characters should die?”

It’s an excellent question, and I offer my thoughts in the form of suggestions:

1. Know in Advance
The death of a main character should not be an after-thought. If a character isn't working, or you can’t decide what to do with them at some point in the story, then the answer is not homicide, but a re-write.

I generally do know from the beginning if (and when and how) a key person will die; it’s been developed as part of the detailed character profiles I create prior to writing my story. 
In fact, the death of one character in my first book was foreshadowed early in the story.

Author Note: But not every time! In my second book, I planned to introduce, then later kill off a minor player. Even then, the death was intended to have a sobering effect on my main character, Thumper. However, as I was writing the story, an unexpected chemistry grew between that doomed character and my Protagonist. The death no longer “felt” right, and in the end, that character became one of the main ones in the final draft. Reprieve!

2. Have a Valid Reason
For me, there needs to be a unique, reasonable, explainable and pre-determined (How god-like does that sound?) set of circumstances to cause me to kill off any of my main players. I view killing a character in a similar way to using profanity—do it because it’s necessary, not for the shock value. And that would be even more so if it involves killing off the Protagonist/primary character. (Which I have not far.)

In my opinion, the reader should also be clear why it happened. We don’t want them investing in one of our characters, and then wonder why they had to die or what purpose it served.

3. Give it Significance
The death of a main character should have meaning. The death might push the Protagonist in a way that fulfills his/her ultimate destiny. It might be the ultimate redemption of the Protagonist, or the ultimate sacrifice that resolves the conflict. This is part of what Joseph Campbell call the Hero's Journey. A major death can/will also reveal or explore things about other key characters. An excellent example is the death of Melanie in Gone with the Wind, which helped Scarlett finally realize she loved Rhett, not Ashley. (Also consider the death of Uncle Ben in Spider-Man or even Algernon in the Flowers for Algernon.)

  • The death of a key character is not a trifling matter; treat it with dignity and respect. Unless the other characters don't know about the death, don't wait several chapters, and then have someone merely reference their demise.
    That cheats your reader!

  • Also be careful with having the remaining characters move on too quickly.
    That will also trivialize the death.

4. Make it Real
I know there’s a place to tease the death of a major player, where it’s designed to heighten suspense. Other characters might think he or she is death, or they've been told the character is dead. That builds interest with the reader. 
Did he die? Is she dead?

However, if the decision is made to kill a character, keep them dead. Don’t walk it back several chapters later.

(Obviously, that would not hold true if you’re writing a supernatural story, with vampires, ghosts or zombies. But unless you're writing for a soap opera, and need to bring back a long-dead, popular character to build up ratings, don't kill someone and change your mind later.)

For me, I don’t want my reader to experience the emotional demise of a main character, only to find out later I lied or tricked them. 

5. No need to sermonize.
If we, as writers, decide to kill off a main character and want to make it meaningful, there's the temptation to spoon-feed that significance to the reader. Let the subsequent action, and the choices of the characters, reveal the results, rather than reduce it to a lengthy eulogy, providing “the moral of this story...”

The most important thing for a writer is telling a good story, and telling it honestly. Because I do love my characters, hurting or killing them is very hard for me, even when I know it’s necessary.

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DISCLAIMER: These are my opinions, and only suggestions; they won't apply in every instance. Each story will be different, and will determine how a writer presents the death of characters, and the impact of that death.