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?”
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
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?