Q&A

Do I Have to Kill One of My Protagonists?

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Hello. I have been reading your character death articles, and it has made me think about my own characters in my own story. I originally was gonna have one character death, but her death was unnecessarily brutal and did not serve a purpose (the true reason behind my unwillingness to go through with this was because I got attached to this character). However, there’s lots of dangerous instances in the story in which my characters could die, especially since they’re fighting against a world-ending monster – I am just very attached to each and every one of them. How should I decide which characters to kill? Should I kill any characters at all?

– Hadeel

Hi Hadeel,

To judge whether a character should die, first look at how your threats are presented. You said your monster is world-ending and your heroes are repeatedly in life-threatening situations. That sounds intense, but how stacked are the odds against them? Is this a “holy crap we’re all going to die!” situation or is it a “this will be the fight of our lives” situation? The more you emphasize how impossible the odds are, and the more times the heroes come up against the odds, the more audiences will expect someone to die.

Then, it depends on the tone of your story. If it’s pulpy or light-hearted action like a Marvel movie, I think you can get away without killing anyone. However, if it’s cosmic horror or otherwise dark in tone, it might be strange if everyone comes away unscathed.

If you determine that your story calls for someone to die by the end, but you don’t want to kill anyone, using other consequences could help prevent your ending from feeling cheap. Look for things that feel significant and are permanent. Maybe the injuries the heroes receive or the trauma they endure has lasting consequences. Maybe important places or artifacts are destroyed that can never be recovered. If everyone makes it through but no one will ever be the same, you’ll probably be okay.

If you decide to kill someone after all, it’s usually okay to spare the most central character(s) and pick one or two side characters. It depends on how many characters are in Team Good and how big and scary the threat is. The characters you pick should be relatively well liked by readers and not aged or close to retirement or something.

Best wishes,

Chris

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    I think one thing to keep in mind if you need to kill a character is to make it meaningful. It does have to serve the plot, it does have to mark an important spot in the story.

    Make the death something epic and, if you can, give the character dying an agency in it. Have them sacrifice their life to give the rest of the group the chance to escape or have them die while experimenting with a new weapon against the enemy, even though the inventor said it wasn’t done yet. Make it clear that their death is not a tragic bit of fate, but something they were aware of and accepted as part of this fight.

  2. Erynus

    Or just kill anyone. I mean, if the monster is eating the planet, chances are there will be innocent victims. If done well, that casualties can be meaningful to the hero, or a proof of their failures.
    I hate films where a city blows up and all the hero cares about is his love interest, his brother or even his pet. Thousands of people just blew up, you know!!!

  3. CJ

    Death of a character is hard because it can come unexpected, if you already planned on killing someone, make sure their death is worth the death, ask yourself, was it necessary, did it further plot, did it cement what kind of book the book you’re writing is, did it change your characters in anyways, etc. etc.

    I for one, do this, I specifically made one character to be killed, and others, that will die as the story progresses to add conflict. I do this to submit that my book I’m writing is dark, is cruel, but also complex in the sense that death is only the beginning, not the end.

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