More Thoughts on David B. Coe’s Post

I agree with David.  If you don’t threaten your characters in some way, you lose a certain amount of dramatic tension.  Which is fine if you’re writing a romance, where the reader loves the book precisely because they know how the book is going to end (it’s how you’re going to get there that’s all the fun), but it doesn’t work if you’re writing any sort of adventure. 

I would suggest, however, that there are some exceptions to David’s rule.  Some characters you really can’t kill off, at least not before the end.  The protagonist, for one.  And perhaps the antagonist as well.  Kill off either of those characters too early, and your story immediately comes to an end (unless you’re writing the book as a flashback).  Write a really, really long novel, or series of novels, with multiple protagonists, and I suppose you can get away with killing off as many of them as you want (Survival! The Song of Ice and Fire version), but with most stories it’s really only the subordinate characters you can afford to kill early if you really want to tell your story.  Most readers know this, and I think they are willing to cut you a little slack even if they know in their heart of hearts that Luke isn’t going to die. 

But there are worse fates than death (no, I’m not talking about the Victorian kind), and that’s what you have to do to your protagonist.  Kill off all his friends, force her to choose which of her children has to be sacrificed to the Toad God, have their father turn out to be the Dark Lord: there are lots of terrible things you can do to your main characters that fall short of killing them.  And not all of them are cliches, either. 

Or you can just resurrect them in chapter 3.

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  1. 1. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Ah, yess. The fine art of Character Torture. I’d add you can’t kill off your point of view character if it’s your only point of view.

  2. 2. S.C. Butler

    Hmm. Wouldn’t that be fun to try though?

  3. 3. glenda larke

    I did kill off THE major villain at the end of book two of a trilogy once. I just love surprising readers.

    There are ways to do these things and still have a good story if you have a devious plotting kind of mind…

  4. 4. S.C. Butler

    Glenda – Which trilogy was that? I’ll have to read it.

  5. 5. Adam Heine

    The thing with Song of Ice and Fire is there is no protagonist, not in the classic “good guy” sense. There used to be, but Martin killed him off, and ever since then you just know you can’t trust Martin to leave *anybody* alive. It’s one of the things I love about the series.

    I like your suggestion (or reminder) about torture. There are many, many fates worse than death, and we sometimes forget that when we “know” the good guy’s going to make it. Koontz’s “Odd Thomas” did that to me.

  6. 6. Marie Brennan

    I have an unpublished novel in which I kill my protagonist, who is my only pov character, before the end of the book.

    What? I’m writing fantasy. Just ’cause she’s dead doesn’t mean she’s done. <g>

    I think the most important point in all of this is to remember that death is hardly the only, or even the worst, threat you can subject your characters to. Failure or loss of something dear to them can be even more powerful, especially since not only don’t you know how they’re going to get out of it, you don’t know if they will.

  7. 7. S.C. Butler

    Adam – That is the beauty of GRRM. He’s the best example of that I can think of, though I’m sure there are many others. Here’s hoping the next book comes out soon.

    Marie – So, you went with the resurrection option? Or did you come up with something new?

  8. 8. David B. Coe

    Great post. Like Glenda, I’ve killed off the major antagonist early (ish) in a series and managed to keep the narrative tension. Conflicts change; sometimes you solve one problem only to discover a bigger one. But I do agree that there are characters you can’t kill. I just don’t want my readers to know that.

  9. 9. S.C. Butler

    David – My hat is off to you and Glenda. And I’m surprised that neither of you has been killed off (earlyish) by your fans.

  10. 10. NewGuyDave

    Killed off your only POV? hmmm… How about a ghost story? Some fabled warrior sitting around the table in Valhalla, reciting his last stand to his fellow legends, only to find out the gods have a task for him, and they send him back before he can finish his mead…LOL

    Sorry, just playing devil’s advocate. I agree with you guys for the most part that there are certain things you can’t do. With some creativity and some fancy writing, much is possible.

Author Information

S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.

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