The death of a main character

As regular readers will know, I am working at the moment on finishing the final part of the fantasy trilogy I have been working on for some time now. Recently, I have been writing one of the climactic scenes, in which a main character will, unfortunately, meet their demise.

Some planning for my latest novel

Some writers are afraid to do this to their characters. Others see it as essential to the story. I remember reading an interview with JK Rowling in which she said she cried when she wrote the scenes featuring the death of one of her main characters. Even though I had written my own story by then, in which I had to kill off one of my main characters, I found it difficult to understand at the time. This is your story, I thought. This person belongs to you. You are in control. Don’t kill them if you don’t want to! But, sometimes, it really is necessary. And sometimes you don’t want to do it.

Well I had re-written the death, re-written it and that was it. It was definitive. And the person was definitely dead. And I walked into the kitchen crying and Neil said to me, “What on earth is wrong?” and I said, “Well, I’ve just killed the person”. Neil doesn’t know who the person is. But I said, “I’ve just killed the person.”  And he said, “Well, don’t do it then.” And I said “Well it just doesn’t work like that. You are writing children’s books, you need to be a ruthless killer.”

There is a difference, though, in killing a main character for the good of the story and doing it just for the shock value. Whether to keep them alive or not ultimately has to be realistic. Take George RR Martin – in his books, no one is safe. But, realistically, his novels are about epic battles and ruthless power struggles, and if no one died, it wouldn’t really be realistic (though I do feel that there is a bit of shock value in there as well…)

There are sometimes reasons of convenience for killing a character. Still, though, it needs to be realistic. There will be a few deaths in my novel, I must admit, and one in particular will be removed to, in a sense, “release” another character from a situation. Others will meet their end because, well, it just has to happen that way – I too am writing about war, as well as the destruction of tyrants, the re-discovery of lost civilisations, love and friendship; loss must feature somewhere in there. Loss of characters good, bad, and flawed.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not difficult to write. Most readers and writers know how easy it is to get attached to a character. But, with reading, you are relinquishing all control over what happens, meaning that you can be sad or perhaps annoyed that a character you have invested in over several novels has been snatched away from you, but you always knew that you wouldn’t be able to influence what might happen. You have no control over their happy ending. (An example – I remember being really annoyed at the end of Trudi Canavan’s Black Magician trilogy, even though I knew deep down it probably couldn’t have ended any other way.) With writing, though, you are in control. Which means that not only are you attached to the characters, but that you created them too, and you know more about them than a reader ever will. And, you know that ultimately, something bad might happen to them. If your book is part of a series, you know the character might have fans who will be most upset by the eventuality, as Rowling discovered. She became quite apologetic after the fact.

We are back to me being a murderer, aren’t we? People have asked me this a lot. I have been repeatedly told ***** was my favourite character, why did he have to die? You can imagine how bad that makes me feel and in fact after I killed ***** I went on the Internet and somehow stumbled across a fansite devoted entirely to him and I’d killed him in the last 48 hours, so that wasn’t good. 

So, after all this, when it actually some to putting pen to paper, even though you know it’s going to happen, it can be hard. In my published novel, Beneath the Surface, a few characters die. But there was one in particular that it was quite difficult to write. As a reader, I really would want this person to have a happy ending – they had been through too much not to. But, realistically, it wasn’t to be.

Beneath the Surface

And perhaps that’s what it’s all about – deep down, we want the characters we love to have their happy endings. I can’t remember shedding any tears when I wrote the scene, but I did feel that sense of finality – this person’s story had ended, just like that. Everything they had been through had led up to that moment, and it was sad to think that they wouldn’t get to end the story in a better way; in a way that would let them reflect on their events they had been through to achieve their goal and know that it was, in fact, all worth it.

The written word can be so powerful.


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