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Writing Advice: Things To Consider When Planning Your Protagonist's Death

04/18/2013 09:28 am ET
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When you’ve reached that point in your story or novel where your main character dies—whether it’s from a disease, fatal accident, murder, or other creative cause—it’s important to handle the death in a way that your readers don’t want to turn away. It’s natural for readers to create an attachment to the central character, and saying good-bye is a hardship we all share. To make the death of your main character a little easier to bear, the following are points of advice to consider when crossing this difficult literary hurdle.

Keep it real.

An unrealistic death may be hard for the reader to understand. Readers will expect a solid reason behind the death of the character they have bonded with, so death from…a stubbed toe…may anger them. Make sure your reasoning for killing the character is plot-driven and not writer’s block-driven. Most readers will be able to tell if this was a thought-out decision or a mode to rush your way to the ending.

On the flipside: Unless your character has superpowers that the reader already knows about, a normal human can’t survive unreasonable circumstances. Explosions, accidents, ferocious animal encounters, alien invasions: Keep in mind what is plausible for him/her to survive.

Give the reader time to mourn.

If the death of your main character is sudden, give the reader time to absorb and react to what happened. You don’t want to kill him/her off and then move on as if nothing happened, or your readers might feel offended by the lack of dignity given to his/her passing.

Sometimes, it’s effective to not truly kill off your main character, but to lead your audience to believe he/she is dead, or even to bring him/her back in a revival. But consider the following before you decide to throw in a twist of that nature:

Make sure you have reasonable motive behind your main character’s revival.

Not every character is intended to return from the dead, so don’t use recovery lightly. If you reverse the death of your main character, it should be vital to the plot of the story, not because you are afraid to stick to your instincts. And if you decide to “trick” your audience by alluding to the main character’s death, rather than stating or showing that he or she is dead, make sure you have a good reason. If you cause your readers grief or worry over the perceived death for shock value alone, you might have an angry audience on your hands.

Essentially, you need to consider the feelings and emotions of your reader. Think about how people act toward the idea of death in real life, and incorporate that same sentiment in your writing. After all, readers easily regard main characters as if they are real people they care about and know. At the end of the day, you know what’s best for your plot and characters; after all, you created them! However, you want to think of the reader, and by doing this, hopefully, when your main character dies you won’t end up as “dead meat” with your audience.

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