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Should You Kill the Main Character in Your Novel? Written by a Professional Book Editor in the UK


Professional book editor in the UK discusses whether aspiring authors should consider killing one of the main characters in their novel!


So, you’re considering pulling the trigger on one of your beloved characters.


Your decision could be for a number of reasons: maybe you’ve written yourself into a corner and feel that someone has to die to get your story free of a plot hole. Perhaps the story is starting to drag a bit and so you’re looking for an easy way to spice it up. Or it could be that you don’t really want anyone to die, but all signs within the novel are pointing towards their demise.


Regardless of the reason, you now have to ask: Should I actually kill this character? And how should I go about it?


My answer might not surprise you, but it depends on how you’ve constructed your characters, how you allow the story to emerge within your writing, and what kind of novel you’re writing for what type of audience.


But leaving it at “it depends on what you’re trying to create” isn’t an especially helpful answer, so let’s break it down a bit.


Generally, the benefit of killing a character comes from two things: emotional effect and plot impact.


Death hurts, so if done well, death wreaks emotional havoc on the characters and the reader. Death also complicates things, so much so that it should never simplify your story. Stakes are raised, trust is broken, and paranoia is instilled.


However, there are already numerous posts around the internet that break down these basic pros and cons, so, for this post, let’s delve a bit deeper into some nuances of character death and some additional things to consider.

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1. How Predictable Should the Character’s Death Be?


Online conventional wisdom says that the more unexpected the death is, the better. After all, in the real world, death is often sudden and feels all the more devastating for it.


Except, death is not always a surprise, right? And it doesn’t actually have to be in fiction, either. On one end of the spectrum, a sudden death can leave a reader (and other characters) shocked, heartbroken, and disoriented, which is a great thing if you’re going for emotional impact.


Of course, if the death is too out of nowhere, it starts to feel cheap. Like it or not, even realistic fiction is expected to follow a few rules of storytelling — one of those rules is that “everything happens for a reason”.


On the other end of the spectrum, there are books like They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera. Far from being a surprise, the death is listed right in the title, a reminder to never underestimate the power of dramatic irony. What this does is create a dull aching dread in the reader, like a bruising pain, rather than a sharp blow.


Dread, suspense, or anticipation can be another powerful set of emotions if done well, and it doesn’t have to apply just to the reader.


What might happen if a character knows they’re about to die, but the rest of the characters don’t? How might that change the way they interact with their friends? What if Character A knows that Character B is going to die—do they tell them? Do they not? What emotional reaction might this evoke?


If you’re really looking for a challenge, you could try creating a story where Character A knows they’re going to die, but the reader is left in the dark. The possibilities here are endless, but the main thing to keep in mind is that the emotional impact doesn’t have to happen only after the actual death—it can start much sooner.

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2. Can the Death Introduce a New Character to the Story?


Did the dead character have friends? Family? A relationship that has until now been peripheral to the main story? How might those people react to their death?


Perhaps that second niece takes a personal interest in investigating the case. Or maybe that spouse is a lot more vindictive than most. All of a sudden, you have a whole cast of new characters itching to join the story. Now, that doesn’t mean you should necessarily let them, but you should know how the main character’s death might affect a wide variety of people.


3. What is Being Lost When that Character Dies?


Each character in a story carries their own well of potential. Just like people, they could grow, change and develop along any number of diverse paths. When you kill a character, you’re essentially trading in all that story potential for one, big gut-punch of a scene.


Plus, in contrast to point two, could the death of a character push other characters out of the story? For example, when Albus Dumbledore dies in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Fawkes leaves Hogwarts, never to be seen again. And in the TV show, Lip Service, Frankie suddenly leaves after her girlfriend gets killed.


So, make sure the trade is worth it, especially if other main characters are lost in the process.

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4. Are you Killing Your Minority Representation?


Whether you like it or not, some demographics of characters have a long, long history of being the first to die in fiction. The “Kill Your Gays” and “Black Dude Dies First” tropes are only two examples of this phenomenon.


Historically, there are some not-so-subtle reasons for this, but it persists in supposedly modern writing as well.


But why is that?


Well, if you’re going to kill someone, it should be a character your readers are emotionally invested in but don’t play an integral part in the overall story—at least not unless you want to completely derail your entire plot. As a result, it’s the “diverse” characters incorporated into the story to act as representation who fit this description nicely.


However, does that mean you should only kill your straight, white, male characters?


Hmm, not exactly. But if the only purpose your “diverse” character serves is to tick a box, that’s not representation, that’s just viewing a minority identity as an archetype.


Each of your characters should be fully developed, never the “black” one or the “gay” one. If the character checks all these boxes, and their death would still serve the story in one of the ways described above, then by all means, kill away!




5. Avoid ‘Fridging’ a Female Character… Unless You Plan to Write a Bad-ass Zombie Wife


While we’re on the topic of character demographics, let’s talk about killing female side characters.


In fiction, there’s a concept known as “fridging”, a term that comes from a Green Lantern comic (Green Lantern #54 for those interested) where Green Lantern’s girlfriend is killed and physically stuffed into a fridge for him to find.


What’s the problem with this?


For starters, it uses a female character solely as motivation for a male hero. Daughters, wives, and mothers are the most frequent victims of fridging, but really, any instance in which a character’s sole purpose is to be a victim is a bit underhanded and comes across to a modern audience as somewhat misogynistic.



Is fridging ever done right? Well, take Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, for example (spoiler alert) — the lead protagonist finds that his wife has been senselessly killed early in the story, and her death is committed with the sole purpose of motivating him into the plot. The catch is that Laura Moon is not actually dead but turns out to be upset by the way she has been treated as a pawn.


This brings us to our next point: should death always be permanent in literature?

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6. Should Your Dead Characters Stay Dead?


By and large, resurrecting characters who are supposed to be dead runs the risk of ruining any amount of trust your readers have in you as the author.


The main benefit of character deaths is the emotional reactions they elicit both from the other characters and the reader. If you kill a character only to double back later and resurrect them, then that cheapens the death and ruins that gut-punch potential in later scenes. If you make a zombie once, readers will expect it from then on.


However, there are times when resurrection could be a good thing—and that’s usually when we start venturing into “a fate worse than death” territory.



Did your character resurrect only to find they can no longer eat, their body is slowly decaying, and they no longer feel any emotions? What if they’ve been returned from some hellish dimension, and are now suffering some form of complex trauma? What if death wasn’t actually that bad, and now they deeply resent the loved one who brought them back from paradise? Or maybe they now know that there is nothing after death at all—just an endless void, which is what Owen Harper discovered in the BBC show, Torchwood, but a formerly religious character might spiral into a full-blown existential crisis.


The possibilities are endless, but the main thing to avoid is returning to “business as usual”—there isn’t a single real person who would not be deeply affected by that experience, so your characters should be deeply affected as well.


There are several other things to take into consideration when killing off a major character, but here at least is a basic list to get you thinking through all those possibilities — and to help keep you out of trouble.


Happy writing! 😊

Chelsea x

 

ABOUT CHELSEA

Book Editors UK

Hey! I'm Chelsea and I'm a professional book editor at Stand Corrected Editing, my independent editorial business in the UK. If you would like to have your manuscript thoroughly edited by myself, click here to get in touch!


With my book editing and proofreading services, I hope to spread my knowledge and expertise on how to make your novel a success, and be a mentor to others who desperately want to pursue a fruitful career as an author!




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