Saturday, August 9, 2008

Killing Off Main Characters

Michelle Gagnon

I recently fell in love with someone else’s series. That’s happened to me a lot over the years. I stumble across an author whose work I absolutely love and proceed to gobble up their books, one after another, becoming horribly depressed when I reach the last one and am forced to wait months or even a year for the next installment.

I remember when I first discovered John Sandford’s Prey series, and couldn’t get enough of Lucas Davenport. Ditto with Janet Evanovich’s Plum series. So to find a new one was a treat. I tore through the books, one after the other, slowing down my reading pace as I approached the final pages of the last book to relish it.

And then, it happened. After the climax, when things finally appeared to be working out for two of the characters after they had suffered horrible tragedies throughout the novels, one of them was killed off. Mind you, this wasn’t one of the second tier characters populating this world, but someone who every storyline had pivoted around. And truth be told, it was my favorite character.

Another of my favorite writers had recently done this with his series, but at the end he coyly hinted that the character might indeed have survived. Despite the fact that when we last saw him he was being dragged to the bottom of a bay under the weight of an enormous steel net, surrounded by ravening monsters, hey, I bought it. Anything to believe he’d be there for me in the next book.

But not here. I finished the last few pages in shock. Even though it was the middle of the night I got on my computer and went to the author’s site. There was a letter which explained the motivation behind eliminating the character. It confirmed that he was indeed really, truly dead.

I actually had trouble sleeping that night, turning it over in my mind. I came under considerable heat for killing off a major character in my first book, a decision that hadn’t been made lightly, either.

But hey, mine was only in the one book, I hadn’t devoted thousands of pages to him. I pondered whether or not I could continue reading the series, especially since I wasn’t nearly as attached to some of the other main characters. And clearly, when a writer does this, the gloves have come off. Anyone could be next. As fellow fans of the series “LOST” know, the last season was a humdinger, major characters dropped like flies as they wound down to the finale. It was shocking for someone who had followed the show from the outset, because there’s a certain tacit agreement made. They’ll be placed in perilous situations, but rest assured that somehow the main characters will survive. Don’t waste your emotional energy on Ensign #4, he’ll be blasted off the Enterprise bridge before the credits, but Kirk isn’t going anywhere.

I’ve thought about this a lot since I finished the final book, debating. Did the author do the right thing, the brave thing? In some ways, I think not. The problem with a series is that frequently you’re forced to subject your main characters to all sorts of unpleasantness, much of which no one would ever encounter in the course of everyday life no matter what their job is. The trials can quickly become Job-like. Remember the season of “Six Feet Under” when the Fisher family just could not get a break? After David was carjacked, I almost quit watching. I felt they’d veered off the skids into the realm of soap opera. Killing off the character in this book felt much the same way to me, unnecessarily melodramatic, when what I’d appreciated about the writing was how that wasn’t usually the case.

So will I continue reading the series? It’ll be difficult for me not to, if for no other reason than I’m curious to see how the author handles it. I’m guessing a large leap forward in the timeline, otherwise it will simply be too depressing watching the other characters deal with their grief. But part of me clings to an alternate ending of the story, one that I’ve created in my own mind, where the character survives and goes on to live happily ever after. Delusional, I know, but then again it is fiction. And what’s wrong with a fairy tale now and again?

So how do you feel about losing a character that you love? Has that ever stopped you from reading a series? Include your email and I’ll draw a name out of the hat for a signed first edition of Boneyard. Or better yet, sign up for my newsletter at and be entered to win fabulous prizes such as an Amazon Kindle, iPod shuffle, and Starbucks & Amazon gift cards.

Michelle Gagnon is a former modern dancer, bartender, dog walker, model, personal trainer, and Russian supper club performer. Her debut thriller THE TUNNELS was an IMBA bestseller. Her next book, BONEYARD, depicts a cat and mouse game between dueling serial killers. In her spare time she’s still trying to recover from the loss of Jin.


paul lamb said...

I've had much the same feeling about Philip Roth's long-standing character Nathan Zuckerman. He's been in 11 novels, I think, and in one he died, or maybe he didn't. But Roth's most recent book featuring Zuckerman has been stated by Roth as the character's last appearance. He didn't get killed off, but he's gone for good this time.

Jen said...

I'm trying to recall if I've read a series where a main character is killed. But I don't think I've encountered one. I have a tendency to favor the "sidekick" characters, so killing one of them would definitely make a difference. For example, if Milo Sturgiss were to be killed in Kellerman's Delaware series, I wouldn't read that anymore. Others (like Reichs' Temperance Brennan series or Fairstein's Alex Cooper series), I would at least try another book in the series. And others, yet, I would definitely keep reading (Elvis Cole, Lincoln Perry, Walt Longmire, Kel McKelvey, etc.).

Laura K. Curtis said...

To me, it's all in the way the author handles it.

I've had this happen to me twice in series. Once in a fantasy series and once in a thriller series.

The fantasy series, in my opinion, did it right. The character died partway through the book, giving me, as reader, a way to come to terms with it before closing the covers. Still made it very difficult for me to pick up the next one, but at least I had a chance. And as I read, I saw how all the other characters had to cope, so I had some sense of being part of the world.

The other series, not only won't I read the next one, I'll never read anything by that author again. I thought the way the thing was handled was both cheap and manipulative. The character was brutally murdered on the last page of the book.

The author claimed it was "necessary to the story arc of the series", and I can accept that, just as I did with the fantasy. But the author also said there would be another book about the other main characters. If so, why not put this death either on the first page of the next book or -- unseen -- between the books so the other characters can react to it? Either way, it would remain part of the story arc.

In fact, there won't be another book for a couple years (the author has said so), by which time the other characters will have dealt with this one's death. So the only people who have to come to terms with the shock and trauma of the murder of someone they've "known" for years (this is a long-running series) are the readers.

So, as usual, I think a lot of it has to do with how the author handles the problem. Most of us suffer enough loss in our "real lives," that when we find fictional homes, we would prefer not to lose our friends there the same way.

Sandra Parshall said...

I'm also a fan of the writer you mention, and although the death was difficult to read about and left me in shock, I respect her right to turn her fiction in any direction she chooses. I will read the next series book eagerly because I want to know about the aftermath. Meanwhile, I'm enjoying her new stand-alone, which also features a character I love.

I wasn't so accepting when another writer killed off a major character. I sulked. I bitched about it. Swore I'd never read her books again. And although I did try the ones that followed, I didn't enjoy them and felt the series heroine had gone off the deep end in the wake of the other character's death. I didn't like what she'd become, and I no longer wanted to read about her.

Michelle Gagnon said...

I agree with Laura, perhaps it was where it occurred in the book that was so disturbing because it was so shocking and didn't offer a chance to mourn the character. Plus, I do feel it was somewhat manipulative, what with them about to open impending good news from the mailbox, then having it go horribly awry. Of course writers have the right to do whatever they want with their characters, but as a reader it does become a choice as to whether or not to continue. I'm enjoying the author's new series, just not as much as the former one.

Lonnie Cruse said...

I confess, I'd have a tough time reading a series where one of the main characters was killed off. It's a matter of trust between the author and me. I'd be "afraid" the writer would do it to me again. I read to escape. Or to enjoy. And a little education along the way doesn't hurt. But upset me too much and I'm gone.

Sandra Parshall said...

In the case of the author we're all talking about and no one wants to name lest some reader scream "Spoiler!" -- I expect to be shocked by her writing. I expect to be left shaken by one thing or another. I expect brutal honesty in the depiction of violence. Her writing isn't sensational; it's realistic, it doesn't pretty up the violence or tuck it away discreetly offstage. So, while I didn't enjoy that character's death and might have appreciated a little space between it and the end of the book, I do feel it was in keeping with what I've come to expect from this author's work. When I start reading one of her books, I know what I'm getting into, so I can't be surprised by much of anything that happens.

Vwriter said...

I'm so happy I found your blog! I've been looking around the web for good writing blogs and yours is heading toward the top of my list.

What I most enjoy is when an author is forced by reader uproar to resurrect a character- as did Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.

Dina said...

Hi Michelle,

I would miss a fav character if they were longer longer there, but if the stroyline was still interesting, then I would continue to read it.

I'm also on your newlsetter, just got it the other day. :)



Michelle Gagnon said...

So I drew names out of a hat, and Dina won the copy of The Tunnels! Thanks so much for chiming in everyone, this was really an interesting discussion.

Dina said...

Woohoo, thank you so much Michelle!!

Melissa said...

I know the contest is over, but the whole subject of killing off characters really intrigued me. I am thoroughly enthralled in Bear Any Burden right now, it is a mystery/thriller by Ellis Goodman. I don't get attached too easily with a main character, but in this particular book, I have found myself caring deeply about each of the characters and am waiting eagerly for the next installment to find out how their lives develop.