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In Defense Of Killing Off Main Characters

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I killed a man,* and I liked it. I needed to do it, and I'm quite happy with the results.
Some people, however, are not. One woman in particular seemed very upset, enough to send me an angry email. She was so mad that she didn't even respond when I wrote to her and explained why I killed him.

Look, bad guys die all the time in books and movies. No one sheds a tear for them, but they're just as alive and human as the fictional good guys, aren't they? But put a bullet in their brain, throw them from a bridge, and what you get from a reader is a nod, a smile, or, if you've done it especially artfully, an outright chuckle.

But just occasionally good guys need to die too, and here's why.

In fiction, be it on the screen or the page, good guys and bad guys alike take risks. Almost all crime fiction requires that someone (or several someones) get waxed. Of course, it's usually the angry-looking dude twirling his mustache of evil, or the chubby bald guy stroking his cat while planning world domination. But not always. Sometimes a major character that we actually like has to die to make the plot work.

In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett and Rhett have a daughter named Bonnie, a young girl who wanted to show off to her parents, who took her pony over a fence that was too high and broke her neck. Tough stuff, killing the cute daughter of the main characters. But her death drove Rhett to drink, and led to him leaving Scarlett. Kind of an important plot point, that.

A more modern example (and if you're planning to watch Game of Thrones, skip this paragraph), is the death of (OK, here's a little more time to skip to my next point... ready?) the warlord Khal Drogo. Shocking in its manner, of course, (the warrior doesn't die in battle but instead the poor laddie gets an infected booboo) but his death was integral to the plot -- his doting wife Daenerys Targaryen comes out from his shadow and becomes a strong, powerful, and far richer character in her own right.

Just look at the good people who died in the Harry Potter books. More minor characters and mostly towards the end of the series, yes, but each untimely expiration gives Harry added courage and determination to complete his wizardly missions.

Which leads me to my second point. The death of one character can not only drive the plot, but show us a little something about the other main characters. In the show Dexter, our main character is a serial killer who gets married and has a son. In the finale of season four, (spoiler alert here if you're planning to see the series... although seriously, if you've not watched it by now, you're probably not planning to) his beloved wife is murdered by another serial killer, someone Dexter is hunting. For a man who doesn't have many emotions (being a psychopath will do that to you) Rita's death was traumatic enough to make a long-lasting impact on a man who can cut bodies into pieces while eating a sandwich. I would suggest that the more emotionally detached your main character, the more you need an impact-death to get him to open up.

In any kind of series, book or TV, this kind of character development is essential, and I used it in my third novel, The Blood Promise [Seventh Street Books, $15.95]. As I explained to my upset emailer, my main character is Hugo Marston, a man very much in control of his emotions. He's friendly and kind but he's a former FBI agent who's seen a lot of bad things, so he's learned to compartmentalize. I wanted to get through to him, to let the reader see a little more of him, see him as a man with emotions he can't control. I wanted to make Hugo sad, and have the reader see him mourn. When his friend died, Hugo wept. This was a new side to him for the reader (and me, actually) but it's not an original idea to suggest that for any series you have to occasionally show a new side to your main characters. The ones you don't kill, that is.

The next reason for axing a likeable and major character relates to the credibility of the author or, looking at it from the other direction, the suspension of disbelief that we ask of our readers. You know why the first Die Hard movie is a classic and the last one a joke? Because you can't generate excitement by merely ramping up the action. Action (and I'm talking about gun fights, explosions, and car chase-type action) is rendered meaningless when it has no consequences.

Imagine a series of novels, a mystery series. Now imagine that in the first five books a different major character is shot/stabbed/blown up and whisked to hospital where he/she fights for his/her life. What happens, do you think, in the sixth book when Major Character gets run over by a train? Is there any tension, any worry about whether he'll survive? No, we know he'll be fine. We're not worried about it because this author doesn't kill off major characters, he's set the pattern. And that means the scene where the character is run over by a train loses any real impact -- without any chance of a consequence, a potentially exciting moment of action becomes predictable, and the story is weaker.

On the flip side, in the TV series The Walking Dead, one-by-one most of the major characters are killed and you, the viewer, quickly come to understand that no one, with the possible exception of the Main Character himself, is safe. That makes for some exciting viewing. And when people read my series, sure, they know my MC Hugo Marston won't get killed, but because I killed off a close friend, and significant character, in one book, every other character is at risk. I hope that risk, that chance of a consequence, means that every time those characters get involved in a car chase or shoot out, there is tension. I like that, I don't want my readers too comfortable. I want them to start a book not knowing what might happen, but knowing that anything could.

One other reason to kill off a major character is so that the author can bring in a new face. In Skyfall, the most recent (and one of the best) Bond movies (right, final spoiler alert but come on, is there someone who's not seen this movie yet?), Judi Dench's M character is killed. Apart from Bond himself, there's no character more important, familiar, or respected than M. Her death, however, paves the way for a new face, Gareth Mallory. Will he be a straight replacement for the old M? We'll have to wait and see, and that's a point of interest for the viewer. When I filled my dead character's shoes, I made a point of bringing in someone very different, a transgender police officer, as it happens. OK, so maybe she'll wear different shoes, but you get my point.

Now, of course there's a risk in killing off a popular and important figure. She didn't say so, but I suspect my email-buddy won't be returning to my Hugo Marston series. Maybe that reader and I weren't meant to be, maybe the kinds of books she reads and that I write aren't the same, as we first thought. We're just not compatible that way.

We'll both move on, of course, and I'll continue to create risks for the characters I create. I love them, too, make no mistake, but they need to know who's in charge, and as each one steps onto a page of my book he or she will do so with the understanding that anyone can have, as Agatha Christie put it, "an appointment with death."

*For the sake of avoiding spoilers, when I refer in this article to a "man," or "he," or "him" I might actually mean a "woman," "she," or "her." I chose to kill a man for this article just because I'm too gentlemanly to so glibly kill a woman. I'll do it if I have to, though.