Reviews & Writing

Friday, September 3, 2010

Killing Characters

So you want to kill off some of your characters. (Wow, you're evil.) How do you do it effectively?


Before we get to that, let's learn a rule of writing successful stories.

You can kill a POV (aka a point of view character).

You can kill a protagonist (aka a hero of your story).

You cannot kill a POV protagonist (Oops).

Here's why:

A POV is the character who the reader imagines him or herself as. When this character is hurt the readers feel the pain. However, since a POV is not a protagonist, they don't care about him or her. So they don't mind if this character is hurt or dies.

Readers care about the protagonist. However, if he or she does not have a point of view, they do not feel the pain that the protagonist feels. This means it is okay for them to die, though it is still more hurtful than killing off a POV.

If you have a POV protagonist, your putting your readers in the mind of a character they care about. If this character is hurt, the readers are hurt. If he or she dies, the readers die. Or at least they might get so upset they'll never think about your book again.

Now, do you see why you cannot kill off a POV protagonist yet? You do? Good.

So, now that I have told you what you cannot do, I will tell you how you can do it and still keep your readers happy.

Warning, the following contains spoilers for: Gladiator, Braveheart, Harry Potter, Troy, Star Wars, and Robo Cop.

There are two effective ways of killing off a POV protagonist. The first one is the most effective.

Following beyond the grave: You follow your dead hero after he dies. This usually involves making your hero a ghost or showing him entering heaven. This lets your reader know that, even though the Hero is dead, his journey is not over and that he will have a happy life. Great examples of this are the movies Gladiator, where the main character dies and then sees his wife and child in heaven, and Braveheart, where right before he dies the hero sees his wife who is in heaven. Another great example is Harry Potter, where after Harry dies he sees Dumbeldore in heaven who explains that death isn't so bad.

A sense of immortality: You give your readers the sense that your hero and his actions will be remembered for all time. This is often done by having other characters taking up the hero's legacy or by showing that the hero's actions have had a great positive impact on the world. Now, all of the people will remember him for this and build monuments, write poems, and even songs in his honor--that kind of stuff. Great examples of this are Braveheart, where Bruce takes up William's fight for freedom (we also know that William is still remembered today) and Troy, where we know that Achilles will be remembered for eternity. Though, the Troy example isn't as effective. Probably because no one takes up Achilles's legacy.

Now, those are the two best ways of killing off your protagonists truly. Here are some other ways you can kill them--if you're feeling particularly evil.

Resurrection: You kill off the POV protagonist and then quickly resurrect him or let your readers know that he will be resurrected soon in the book. A good example is, once again, Harry Potter, when after Harry dies he is quickly resurrected and then goes on to defeat Voldemort. Another example would be many sci-fi stories like Robo Cop, where after the protagonist appears to be dieing he is saved by advanced technology. The same thing happens to Anakin after he is burned.

Write a Horror: It is perfectly normal to kill off POV protagonists in a Horror book. All you have to do is make sure that you have a clear protagonist who will live longer than anyone else. Its okay in Horror because people expect it.

Write a Trajedy:
It is okay for your POV protagonist to die in the end if your book is clearly a tragedy or deals with alot of death. Be warned, these books are still publishable but will not sell too well or be popular. People will not have happy memories after this kind of boo. They will not recommend it to others.

Have many POV Protagonists: If you have many Pov protagonists who your readers can cheer for, you can get away with killing one without using any of the methods above. A word of caution: the death will still detract from people liking your story and should only be done if it is necessary to the plot. If you want to pull off a death like this, you have to be a strong writer and make sure that your other characters are likable enough that your reader will still keep reading. I'd recommend having one of your other characters take up the legacy and mission of the dead one.

So, those are all of the ways you can kill off a POV protagonist and not receive hate mail.

If you have any questions, or if you have any of your own theories on killing people, please comment--I meant killing characters. Killing characters, not people. I hope that is clear. This site is for writers, not serial killers.


  1. Another good example of the protagonist being dead and telling the story is The Lovely Bones. She is watching her family, and her murderer that lives on the same street. I think Alice Seabold did a great job with it.

    I personally enjoy when writers/ movie directors make you THINK the protagonist died... and then they come back and you breathe a big sigh of relief.

  2. I agree, although nowdays I can usually guess when a protagonist will come back. They make it so damn obvious