I Killed My Hero. OMG! You Did What?!

Reader Question: “Is there a way to kill off the main character early or in the middle of a story? If so, does that kill the story or can it still work?”

Killing The Hero

There are a few instances where killing off the main character at any point in the story can work, but, generally, the Hero shouldn’t die. At The Hero’s Journey Seminar, Karel Seger’s covered this with very good reasoning. He explained that when the Hero dies the viewer is confused because he or she is no longer tied to the character. When death happens to other characters we feel the emotions through the Hero but if you do funky stuff to the Hero you create a detachment that brings the reader/viewer out of the story. I add however, that while it is rare for the death of the Hero to play well in a story it can be done, if it is done well.

Life After Death

For example, if the main character continues through the story after he is dead then it can work. Paranormal stories are becoming more common. Modern readers are open to the idea that there may be an afterlife or life after death. So, a character may die and return to the story as a ghost or other ethereal being. I can think of at least one fantastic example where the character was dead all along and you didn’t know it until the end of the movie. The body may physically die and then be magically or metaphysically reanimated, such as with vampires and zombies. I remember one such biblical death that has been remembered evangelically for centuries. An immortal might experience “death” several times and survive those experiences.

But, life after death isn’t necessary paranormal either. A Hero could experience what has come to be called a “near death experience”. The body may physically die, it may even be pronounced dead, and then spontaneously revive. The science-fictional aspect of cryogenics and other stasis are states where the body would be declared clinically dead. There is no longer a measurable heartbeat or brainwave. The body’s metabolism is slowed down to such a deep “sleep” state that it no longer dreams. Yet, from this “death” the character can revive, exactly as they were before or, as poor Han Solo could attest, with one hell of a hangover.

What is significant about these deaths is that the death experience itself is profound for the character. Experiencing death, and then living in some way beyond that experience leaves a mark on the character. They often experience fundamental change. In a way, they do die because after that experience it is impossible to be exactly who they were before. If you write a scene where the main character dies it needs to have that profundity.

Another aspect of life after death that is becoming more commonly accepted as possible is the survival of the soul after the body dies. In some religions, the soul resides in the heavens after death, but in others the soul is reborn into the world of the living. In this way a character could live again after dying. It could be interesting telling a story from the point-of-view of the eternal soul. What if your character remembers living a former life?

Death, And Then Dying

Sometimes a story can open on a death scene and then flash back. It’s not a popular method because, lets face it, how much is a reader going to be willing to invest in a story if she knows that the character is going to die at the end? But flashbacks can work, especially if the opening scene leaves the death uncertain. If the character is dying when the scene flashes back then your reader is given a strong hook to find out if the character is going to live or die. Again, however, the experience must be a profound one and if that character does ultimately die at the end then you should definitely remember the points I make next.

A Heroic Death

One movie I remember did it brilliantly. The character development through the movie was profound and in the final few minutes the main character makes a heroic choice. One life, for many, but the real choice he made was his life, for his daughter’s. And that’s where it was a real and just choice and where his death made him truly a hero. It did work. But I also remember leaving the cinema at the end out of that movie feeling betrayed and heartbroken. We’re used to great stories having the traditional “happy ending”. The good guys win and go home and live to fight another day. And, technically they did, the good guys did win, but at a terrible price.

I think if most stories did this we’d go into movies with fewer expectations about how things should unfold. This movie is proof that it can be done, and done well. But while a moment like this is memorable, is it truly being fair to your reader/viewer? When we give ourselves into the hands of the writer there is a bond of trust. We open ourselves up to care about these characters. Death is a part of life, it is painful, and killing of that main character can abruptly rip us away from the story. Grief creates disconnection. And we grieve for a well written character who dies. When it’s the main character, it’s almost like we die ourselves because we’ve been seeing the world through that characters eyes. It’s their life we’ve lived while reading the story. It’s very hard to remain invested in a story when our heart has been ripped out.

Not Always A Hero

Sometimes you have to be aware that the Hero may not be who you think he is. If you kill off a character early and the story continues with someone else then that initial character was not the Hero. Beware of this trap because it’s a dangerous one. You can invest a lot of time writing the story in the point of view of one character and making such a dramatic shift to another disjoints the story. If you’ve got this happening in a draft, seriously consider if you could tell the story from the second character’s point of view from the very beginning. Examine your reasoning, why does this shift take place and is it fully justified?

My Advice On Killing The Hero

Make your Hero's death memorable.If you must do it, if the story needs to have this character die, do it well. Make the death memorable and completely justifiable. Never kill a main character carelessly. Don’t have him hit by a bus. Senseless death is waste and a reader needs to feel a sense of purpose behind such a great loss. Fiction, unlike life, has to have meaning. Every action has a motive and a purpose. Even the death of your character, any character at all, needs to mean something. But if that death is of your main character, your Hero, it must be vital, and life-altering. Weigh the loss the reader feels, the grief, and the sense of disconnection with what character’s death gives back to the reader and make sure there is a fair trade there. Sometimes the Hero does have to die, and when he does, he should be remembered for the remarkable contribution he made to through his life.

Which stories, books, or movies do you know of that killed off the main character? How did you feel when it happened?

Do you have a question about writing fiction? Ask me via email, Facebook, Twitter, or Plurk.

Character Birthdays: Happy Birthday, Heros and Heroines

Happy Birthday Cake for Heroes, Heroines, and CharactersDo you know your when to wish your characters a happy birthday? Many writers neglect the most important day of their protagonist’s life. After all, if she was not born into your imaginary world, you wouldn’t be able to tell her story now. But there are stronger writing issues to consider when deciding your male and female characters celebrate their birthday.

Happy 29th, Again

What is your character’s attitude toward her birthday, and her age? Does she dread every passing year, or does she celebrate with a blow-out party that includes everyone she’s met in her life? When are the birthday’s of your character’s family? If you don’t know, you are missing out on a key area of characterization that you could explore.

More importantly, you may miss her birthday all together! If her birthday falls right into the middle of your story, your character wouldn’t completely forget. At the very least, she would comment to herself about how she is far too busy to go out with her friends this year. Perhaps she’ll miss visiting her parents, because she has now moved halfway across the country to start her new job. Are your character’s kids celebrating their birthdays with a crisis filled birthday party? Her new love interest may forget, and schedule his monthly golf game on the birthday weekend she expected him to take her to his beach side villa. Unless you know, your characters will never age, and gain the wisdom that comes with reflecting over the course of their lives so far.

What’s Your Sign?

Another consideration is that you or your characters may have an interest in exploring what their birthday stands for, in the universal scheme of things. Astrology and Numerology use a person’s birthday to determine their personality traits, and the possible issues they might have to deal with throughout their lives. If you are struggling to flesh out a character, you can look up their birthday, and discover how they might act in their relationships, careers, and home lives. If you don’t like what the results turn up, you can change their birthday to a different sign, and start over. Even if you don’t care about such things, your young college student heroine might read her horoscope every morning, and you ought to have an idea what it would say.

Other uses for birthdays include exploring what happened on that day in history. If your historical hero was born on the day the Civil War started, he would have a different upbringing than someone whose parents raised him during the Great Depression. Many websites and books have such “Day in the Life” descriptions, or you could scan old newspapers near your character’s real world hometown. Even less famous events could play into your character’s life, such as if she were born on the same day the water tower fell and flooded her home.

Planning For Other Character’s Birthdays

Even if your story covers a short amount of time, it is wise to know when all of your characters are born, not just your protagonist. She may be planning a surprise party for her best friend, when she suddenly loses her job and can’t afford to do so anymore. Your antagonist may decide to cause havoc on his birthday every year, because local bullies wrecked his 18th birthday party.

Birthdays are a great rite of passage that everyone goes through each year. It marks new growth, beginnings, and a chance to start life with a clean slate. Your characters could use these same milestones, to take your story in new and unexpected directions.

What do birthdays mean to you, and your stories? Have you explored how your characters react to growing a year older?

Editor’s Note: Know another birthday you shouldn’t forget? Writer’s Round-About! We’re turning 3 this month so come and win some prizes at our birthday bash.

Image credit: Dan Taylor

Five Traits Your Heroes Must Have

Your Romantic Hero? What character traits does he have?No matter what kind of fiction you write, you have to have a main character, a hero, with various traits. This is especially true in romance writing. Your characters are tall, dark, and handsome. They’re perfect.

Or are they?

Romantic heroes should have great qualities. Here are five qualities your heroes need to be well-rounded, believable characters:

1. Likeability

If you don’t like your hero, your reader won’t either. More importantly, neither will his intended love interest. No interest on the heroine’s part, no story regardless of how much your hero wants to be with her.

Even if he isn’t likeable in general at the beginning of your story, he has to have at least one likeable quality. He also needs potential to grow to be more likeable.

2. A flaw

Let’s face it: People aren’t perfect. Your hero shouldn’t be either. He needs to be flawed.

Give him a physical imperfection. He’s tall, dark, and handsome, with a limp. His face is badly scarred from being burned in a fire.

Give him a psychological imperfection. His uncle is a renegade vigilante who leads bands of clansmen to ambush rival clans as they travel. He’s a womanizer who has been told he has to get married or lose his title and position.

3. A love interest

While your hero could be narcissistic and love himself, he also needs to have an external love interest. What else is a romance but a story between two people, regardless of sexual orientation, as they fall in love and deal with the conflicts that arise as their relationship grows? Well, okay, it could also be a suspense, mystery, or historical, just to name a few. The lover needs to give the hero a reason to grow, to change. He can’t be the exact same person at the end of the story as he was at the beginning.

4. Other interests/events

Do you have one interest and only one interest in your life? I think the answer is no. You have more than one interest. Your hero should, too.

What else is going on in his life that takes his attention away from his one-and-only? War drags him away just as things are starting to get hot and heavy. Hunting takes him away for shorter times. Injury, and possibly near-death, keep him away for longer (but also serves for good growth in their relationship if his love interest is willing to act as his nurse). His job makes him travel cross-country. Football keeps him glued to the television on Mondays.

Give him something else to be interested in. Otherwise, you will have a flat character that no one – including you – cares about.

5. Motivation

What drives your character?

Other than spending time with his heroine, there is another driving force in your hero’s life. Perhaps it is protecting his people, getting a promotion, defending his family’s honor, or making enough money to live comfortably. Without motivation, your character is a dead-beat.

That’s not very romantic.

There are a lot of factors that go into creating a strong character. These five traits, while not exhaustive by any means, provide a good foundation for creating your hero. They are also not exclusive to men. Your heroines also need these qualities, which should complement the hero’s, at least in some ways.

Above all, your heroes and heroines need to be individuals and not cookie-cutter copies of previous characters with different names. Figuring out these main five traits will help develop their individuality. How else can you set your heroes and heroines apart from other characters?

Jen Nipps is a talented romance author and freelance writer/editor based in south-central Oklahoma, USA. She currently spends time in the hands of her love, the hero of her latest historical romance, “Trevor’s Triumph”.

Kat O’Reilly On Writing Romance

Talented romance author, Kat O’Reilly, joins us today to share a little about writing romance.

On Writing RomanceHey Kat, thank you so very much for joining us this month. As you know, we’re all about “Romance and Relationships” at Writer’s Round-About this February and with Valentine’s Day just last Sunday, love is still on many of our minds.

1. You’ve written a series of historical romances already, what inspired you to begin these novels and to write in the historical romance genre?

Honestly? I had a dream that started the first book, “Kiernan’s Curse”. Half of the dream is the opening of the prologue. The other half is later on in the book. That’s really pretty much why I started writing the books. From the way Kiernan was dressed in the dream, I knew it had to be historical, but I didn’t know what era, so I had to do quite a bit of research to find that out.

2. There is at least one key relationship in any romance, what is involved in developing the relationship between your hero and heroine?

Mutual attraction brings them together initially and that does remain, but there has to be something more. And it’s not always about chemistry. No relationship is without conflict, so a big part of why they’re together is how they work things out. It’s different for each one, but the key is that they grow individually and as a couple with each one.

3. What do you think is the most important aspect a character needs to truly connect with your readers?

Likeability. Even the antagonists need to have at least one likeable trait. You hear about characters people love to hate. That’s because there was something the readers identified with that they actually liked in the character even if they (thought they) hated them.

What brings the Hero and Heroine together?4. Do you find this aspect is also what brings your Hero and Heroine together?

Definitely! If the hero & heroine weren’t likeable, there’d be no reason for the story.

5. Although the romantic relationship between your Hero and Heroine is the most significant in a romance novel, do you think it is important for the characters in romance novels to have relationships with additional characters? How do these other relationships benefit the story?

Again, definitely! Without the other relationships, the story is flat and readers don’t really get to know the characters as people. That’s important to me in books I read, so I want to give the same feeling in my books.

6. Recently, you mentioned that your current work-in-progress, “Trevor’s Triumph might be the steamiest of the three…”, what makes a romance novel “steamy”?

I have a friend/mentor who would say the “smut factor” makes a romance novel steamy.

Sexual tension definitely contributes to the steaminess of it. Some romance novels stop there. I don’t. I actually go behind closed doors. In the beginning of the book, if Trevor lived in modern times and were a woman, he’d be called a slut. He meets the woman he’s supposed to be with and immediately gets the hots for her. He respects her father, the head of another clan, so he doesn’t try to get into her skirts (yet), but he goes back home and gives himself a hand-job. That’s in chapter two. (I’ve had another hero do that, but not until quite a bit later in the book.)

I do my best to keep from including such scenes gratuitously, but I can’t give a guarantee that all of them (usually 2 per story, if that many) are absolutely 100% necessary.

7. One of the aspects that make romance novels distinctive is the broad variation of “love scenes“, from the tender caress, to the no-holds-barred sex scene. What do you think is most important when writing these kinds of scenes?

Even with a no-holds-barred scene, you’ve got to leave some things to the imagination. Otherwise, it borders on porn. While I might write erotic scenes, I don’t do porn. Some writers do (and I’ve actually read some that has been done well). I try to be erotic without being too smutty.

The most important thing in these scenes, other than the imagination factor, is if the scene works. How does a love scene work? If you get turned on. At a conference one time, I heard a romance writer (I can’t remember who at the moment) said if you get turned on writing the scene, your reader will when they read it. And you know the scene works.

What is the true purpose of love scenes in romance writing?8. What do you think is the true purpose of “love scenes” in romance writing?

I think it varies. Sometimes it’s meant to show that the main characters are sexually compatible. Sometimes it’s to show some character development. I try to do a bit of both in the scenes I include.

9. Reflecting on the novels you’ve written yourself, which lines stand out the most in your own memory? Why do you think you’re drawn to those in particular?

Do you mean actual lines I’ve written? That’s a tough one.

In “Navajo Rose”, which is a contemporary romantic suspense, it’s during the second intimate scene with Paige and Ricky. The first one, she panicked and made him stop. Here’s the bit from the second one that stands out the most for me:

  • She squeezed lightly and smiled when he moaned. She did it again and sat up to give him a lick.
    He stopped her then. “I can’t do that right now.” It sounded as if someone else spoke. He had never heard his voice so husky.
    “Then what?”
    “If I start, Paige, I won’t be able to stop.”
    She frowned and growled at him. “I’d kill you if you stopped right now.”
    His shaft jerked at her tone. “I don’t have a condom.”
    “I don’t care!” She squeezed again.

The key part of it is where he tells her he wouldn’t be able to stop.

10. Which book do you think has had the greatest impact on your romance writing? Why do you think it influences you so greatly?

I don’t think there’s one book in particular. There are four authors who do, though: Sherrilyn Kenyon, Christine Feehan, Karen Marie Moning, and Katie MacAlister. Each of them have some aspects that I try to learn from. With Sherrilyn & Katie, it’s their immediacy. With Karen, it’s her description. With Christine, it’s the closeness to her characters. (They all have great closeness, but with her Ghost Walker Series, it’s even more pronounced since they’re all somehow psychically enhanced.)

Here’s a little secret: The first sex scene I ever wrote, I read one of Sherrilyn Kenyon’s intimate scenes (I think it was in Dark Side of the Moon) as a kind of guide as to how to structure it. *s*

Thank you again for your time, Kat. I truly appreciate having this opportunity to share in your experiences. Writing for the romance genre can be particularly challenging but it’s a very popular theme and it has universal appeal. We all want to experience a little love in our lives. Writing romance must be a wonderful way to be immersed in the sensation of new love and the roller-coaster of romantic relationships.

What do YOU think makes a romance “steamy”? Have you read a love scene that really turned you on? What do you think is the true purpose of “love scenes” in romance writing? Have you ever written any of your own?

SG1 Series Part Two: Character Development

Characters are an elemental part of every story. An intriguing plot with a good story-arc is important but without approachable characters your story will never connect with an audience. Readers need characters. Characters are the socket for your stories power supply. It is through your characters that readers can plug into the plot and experience the life of your story.

The Stargate series introduces a multitude of characters in various stages and of differing quality and consideration. Some play bit parts as extras or body count but others grow into the story, we come to love them or hate them, we come to care for the part they play in the story, their injuries and deaths bring anguish and grief or heartfelt cheers.

SG1 – Jack, Daniel, Sam and Teal’c

The original SG1 is a team of four diverse characters. Their differences create an initial challenge; they struggle as a unit until they learn to use each others strengths to counter their own weaknesses. It shows the importance of bringing opposites together. These characters are unique in their own fields. It is their united purposes, each individual to their character, which brings them together. A bond is formed that gives this eclectic community a solid friendship. We see the bond develop and grow with the characters as the series progresses.

It is important to blend characters but avoid carbon copies. Each character should be unique and individual. Distinguish them with separate goals, established histories, areas of interest and technique.

The SGC and General Hammond

The Stargate Command is an entity in its own right. It is actually a collection of individuals that work in regulated ways to create a standardized base of operations. There are many faceless characters lead by the General. Most of the time we don’t connect with these individuals but General Hammond represents the unity. His personality molds the actions of the SGC.

Larger forces need a strong head character to represent their interests. Armies can seem like a long column of faceless men but a charismatic leader will show a distinguishing command of his forces. Each of his men is ultimately the voice of this man and a solid leader is one whose men will lay down their own lives to support the orders he puts forth. This is true of the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ guys.

The Goa’uld

While the Goa’uld are a nasty bunch in their own right they are an ideal antagonist. They aren’t evil. They have solid reasoning and a collection of emotional reactions that allow readers to associate with them. The Goa’uld act entirely out of an arrogant sense of self preservation and domination. As a people (um… symbiotic race) they act with rational, intelligent thought. They are challenging but not insurmountable.

Antagonists should be normal people. You can create more impact with a sympathetic antagonist then with a diabolical freak. If a reader can see themselves in a protagonist you have a good story but if readers can see themselves to some small degree in the antagonist then you have a charged situation that will keep a reader tied to the outcome.

There are many more characters involved in the Stargate series. Each new person (or group of people) is shown in snippets. Base motivations appear and personality traits are revealed but characters always have an element that remains unseen. It is impossible to know everything and it is important that characters can still do something unexpected or unpredictable.

Over time, we get to know the main characters. Their own personal stories are revealed and delved into. The primary characters are challenged with personal situations forcing them to make choices that distinguish them. Whole episodes play a vital role in adding depth to these characters and introduce situations that push their qualities forward.

  • Use time in your story to slowly reveal your characters.
  • Allow their actions and reactions to portray the depth of their beliefs and desires.
  • Each scene should use your characters strengths and weaknesses.
  • 3D characters have sides we cannot see.
  • A characters relationships reveal vital clues to their personality.
  • Characters always continue to grow and change based on the situations that occur in each moment of their lives.

Finally, just because your story has reached ‘The End’ does not mean your characters have. Characters should still be imperfect in the final scene. Their growth remains incomplete. Some of your characters may have died but most will live on beyond your closing paragraph and while they began at one point and progressed to another in this story there should always be another world to save, another enemy to fight, another day to live and another dream to follow.

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Five Part Series: Writing Lessons From Stargate SG-1

It’s interesting to watch television in the writer frame of mind. What would be, to the average viewer, an enjoyable and almost effortless opportunity to relax in the world’s of our fictional friends, becomes an intriguing weave of technique, language, structure, and seamless formula; a masterful journey through character development, plot, sub-plot, continuity, hooks and hangers.

I’ve been watching Stargate SG-1 for hours this week all in the name of research. (I wonder if I can write the DVDs off as a tax deduction.) Often the trusty t.v. is the portal through which our brains seep but I’ve found that there are also some incredible lessons we can learn. Stargate isn’t the only television series to offer these lessons. My other personal favorites are Dark Angel, House, Californication, Heroes and Charmed.

What these six television series have in common is their complex meta-story and character development. I’m sure there are other series that have shared this asset. Each of these series starts from episode one, season one and tells a story, through every episode which ties to every thread from the beginning to end of the series as a whole.

Other shows, such as The Simpsons, Futurama, and NCIS each take a cut of life. Their episodes could be watched out of order, with zero continuity and still be as enjoyable but with my favourite six, if you miss an episode you’ll have a significant gap in events. Every episode is important because they are woven together, like a brilliantly structured series of novels.

In the coming weeks I’m going to explore what I’ve learnt in a five part series.

  • Part One: Story-Arc, Plot and Sub-Plot
    We’ll explore the familiar curves of story arc over episodes, seasons and series then delve into the complex unity of plot and the careful techniques used to tie sub-plot into a cohesive story.
  • Part Two: Character Development
    We watch the growth of loved and loathed characters as they develop through a series. These characters share their past and present with us; we develop emotional connections that leave us intimately involved in their future.
  • Part Three: Action and Dialogue
    Why t.v. and movies are a fantastic way to encourage powerful writing. All “Show” and no “Tell”. How can we incorporate this audio/visual experience and translate it for written media?
  • Part Four: Hooks, Hangers and the Sequence of Events
    How t.v. series writers have mastered the “Story Hook”. They grip us in the first few minutes pre opening credits and leave us hanging as the final credits roll across the screen. How does the sequence of events hold an audience? We’ll explore the finer points of when to push and when to pull your viewers/readers.
  • Part Five: Formula – Making A Success Key Mould
    The most successful t.v. series follow a very specific formula, so do many writers. What keeps this formula fresh and interesting? How can we make a mould of our own successes so we can replicate them in the future?

I hope you’re as intrigued by the idea as I am. If you’ve been looking for a legitimate excuse to spend a few hours watching old episodes of your favourite t.v. shows you now have one. Consider it homework if you like. Watch t.v. with your writer’s mind fully switched on and tuned in. What do you learn about writing from your favourite t.v. series?