Kill the Main Character

I like stories where important characters die. Sometimes violently. Often suddenly. Always by surprise.

I am reading George Martin’s Game of Thrones series. I am deep into Book 4 and have lost count of the number of seemingly major characters who have died over the previous four books.

My favorite TV show of the moment is The Walking Dead. I just caught up with the first half of season 3. ***Spoiler alert: from the beginning of the show to the most recent episode, people die. Lots of them.

I grew up reading both horror and fantasy novels. I read both genres for years and then just stopped. My complaint with both genres was lack of surprise. No matter how unique the adventure, how bold the quest, how vicious the monster, you could rest assured that the hero would survive and overcome. Dull, dull, dull.

When you know the hero is going to survive, there’s really nothing at stake. I love the moment of frisson when a major character fails. The whole narrative spins. Every assumption about the rules of the story get reexamined. Everything is fresh and uncertain and the characters who remain get a lot more interesting because there are no guarantees. Everything is suddenly at stake.

This works best in stories of epic scale, tales with plenty of major characters to spare. But you can’t just stock the shelves with disposable bodies. You must first make me care about them. I need to relate to their motivation and root for them to succeed. Don’t let the death be entirely meaningless. The death should be quick and merciless. It should happen suddenly from an unseen direction, but it cannot be random and it must advance the story and increase the dramatic tension. The death must diminish the hopes of those who remain and then,¬†inexorably,¬† force them to grow and inhabit their potential in unexpected ways.

Don’t write the same story over and over again. Invent new rules. Twist the old rules. Be brave. Force your characters to be brave. Kill your major characters. Don’t let the reader get too comfortable. I don’t read to be comfortable. I read to destroy my beliefs and unmake my assumptions. Surprise me. Don’t let me relax. Disturb me. I will thank you. I will read your books.