Killing Main Characters: Yay or Nay?
Books generally revolve around one or more main characters. This is an essential part of cohesive storytelling. Without a central figure that the plot more or less revolves around the story feels disconnected. Could you imagine a story that has no central figure and just a plot? How does a plot become a plot with neither an antagonist nor protagonist? Nature versus all of humanity? How would that work? Well, there would be some respected world leader who takes the reigns, some imminent scientist who would be called upon to find a solution, a courageous military commander willing to lay his life on the line to save his country out of patriotic duty, or someone who would step up into a centralized role as the hero, or heroine. There is no excitement in a story if all of humanity comes together and changes our ways to defeat climate change through recycling. There has to be some conflict, someone pulling the strings towards destruction, and then someone fighting to save their family, their country, their world, etc. That's just the way stories work.
But when it comes to telling stories with multiple key figures, think Frodo, Sam, and the others in The Fellowship of the Ring, or Harry, Ron, and Hermione in Harry Potter, or even Riorik, Nordahs, and Hugh in The Ascension Legacy, what happens if one or more of those characters die? We saw Boromir die in The Fellowship of the Rings. We saw Harry technically die in Harry Potter. Did these deaths, even the temporary ones, affect the story for you? Did they upset you? Did they give the story a greater emotional impact?
Those are the questions that authors struggle with when it comes to determining who will die and who will live. Oftentimes, authors will kill off ancillary characters or characters with no real strong connection to the main plot. This serves to add some drama to the story and to let the key characters solidify their motivations for stopping whatever evil is afoot.
But what about killing key figures in the story? Would Tolkein's masterpiece have been as loved or as good if he had killed Pippin instead of Boromir? What if Aragorn had returned to help fight only to die in battle? What if Harry had died instead of Cedric Diggery in the Triwizard Tournament? What if Draco had been killed defending Harry? The circumstances of their deaths could be tailored to the story and not as an exact replacement for the actual deaths that happened but still, what would those characters' deaths have meant to the story, and more importantly, to the reader?
Readers will connect with different characters. Some may sympathize with Frodo's plight while others find themselves drawn to Sam's unflappable devotion to his friend or Pippin's cheery disposition. I like Sean Bean and his characters. I was devastated when he was cast as Boromir because that meant he had to die. This means that as an author, you have no way of knowing which of your characters may resonate with your readers. For some, this means that killing main characters is something of a taboo while others look at it as little more than the cost of the plot.
So where do I stand on this topic?
Well, I'm not beyond killing characters, period. I'll kill anyone if it helps the plot, creates something of a twist, or opens the door for something I think is better in the long run. That said, I don't make it a goal to kill central figures in my stories. I write the stories as they flow, in somewhat of an organic nature, and sometimes that flow takes me to a path where someone who has been around for a while needs to die. But to me, stories are like life, every day is like a new chapter and you never know how that chapter will end until you've reached it. And my writing style is the same way. I start writing a chapter based on where the previous chapter ended but there is no foregone conclusion as to how that new chapter will end until it's done. My stories evolve and morph as I write. I have a general concept in mind for the key plot points but the who, how, why, when, where is all very dynamic.
When I started writing The Ascension Legacy, I had a concept for a grander story. More pieces of armor to be found. More races to be involved. Just a lot more. But as I wrote I found the scope of the original story to be too grand and I decided to scale back. Scaling back meant that original plot lines were going to change, character arcs would be different, and so on. This meant that as I wrote that I had to adapt. I made notes of things and had ideas on how I wanted to handle the updated storyline but there were a lot of details in between that had to be concocted at the moment. Characters that never were suddenly sprang into creation while characters who had predetermined lives in the story found themselves with new purposes, some of which may have required their deaths at some point.
And the same is true for all of my stories. I start writing once I feel I have a solid concept and some core characters but beyond that everything is done very fluidly. Some stories see nobody of significance die while others may see multiple characters that had some pivotal role in the story die, sometimes violently.
As an author, I feel these deaths advance the story, give the plot a deeper connection to the reader who may want justice for the dead characters, and help to allow other characters to express a different set of emotions that might not otherwise be explored.
But my question is this: as a reader, do you think authors should kill important figures or not? I'd love to hear your answers in the comments! Let me know your thoughts on this.
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