How to Kill Your Protagonist in 5 Easy Steps
Grieving a deceased character is no feigned matter for the reader, and can’t be forged by the author either. After all, any character an author writes into their work is their own brain child – when they get the axe, the author has to share the Kleenex with the reader too. For as hard as it is to see your fictional faves go, it’s equally hard for writers, making the process of killing a protagonist a heavy burden. When done right, however, a death can reveal a book’s most rooted themes and prod a reader’s most cavernous feelings. Unlike real death, literary death instructs; it’s carefully laced with theme and motive, and masterful authorial purpose. Not all authors can pull off fictional murder, but when they do wreak havoc, some tips can come in handy.
1. Devise your purpose
The author's axe is not given willy-nilly. If writers are going to put their readers and themselves through the grief, they traditionally (with perhaps Game of Thrones being the exception) have a method behind the madness. Take The Great Gatsby. His death at the end of the novel proves forgettable, unremarkable, and leaves no glimmering trace of his life or his few good deeds. It’s Fitzgerald’s haunting reminder that despite a few moments in the sun and a spectacular illusion, Gatsby was not great. All the tokens of goodness: shiny toys, his ridiculous amount of shirts, his seemingly heroic and enduring love for Daisy, are all perused in vain and his ultimate death proves only a release from vanity, not a legacy left behind.
Another prime example is Anna Karenina’s death. Throwing herself before the train prods the reader to give into the instinctual notion that true love trumps all and that star crossed lovers (Anna’s affair with Vronsky) can defy the odds. But what her death actually does is gut this notion of romance and magic. Far from a sacrifice, her suicide is a statement by Tolstoy about the rigidity of the world. There are laws and rules and orders established; life is no fairy tale; tough cookies.
2. Create an attachment
What good is a death if the readers don’t care? We want to know our characters before they swim with the fishes. Without a proper introduction and some serious fictional dating, a reader can’t tease out a purpose for the death. Any meaningful loss is made ripe with time and every character to the guillotine is only lulled there by our prolonged interest. Ultimately death is what breaks the attachment. Our fictional dad in The Road, Cedric in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and - if we want to talk reeal long term love connections - Dumbledore at the end of the Harry Potter series are all prime examples. Although not all protagonists, we've weeped for you equally.
3. Offer subtle cues (or none at all)
As a writer you ultimately hit a fork in the road: do you let the reader in on your well-kept secret or is mum the word? If you opt for the prior, you may end up with something akin to the tragedy of A Little Life. One of the four co-protagonists, Willem, is suddenly killed off in a car accident. He’s the golden haired actor, the quiet loyal friend, and the one who has always warded death away from the suicidal Jude. He’s not the one you expect to die, and his untimely death not only stirs a reason in Jude (his friend and long-time lover) to continue living, but forces the reader to grapple with the randomness of death and loss.
If you’re just too giddy to keep your mouth shut and find yourself eager to give the reader a vowel, you may end up with something like, as referenced earlier, The Great Gatsby. Without being fully conscious of the effect Fitzgerald’s words have on us, something tells us things won’t end well for Mr. G. That’s not our intuition whispering words of warning, that’s F. Scott’s masterful writing. He uses a eulogy-like tone prior to Gatsby’s death, hanging on scenes like the following to wrestle up some anticipatory feelings of loss:
“’They’re a rotten crowd,’ I shouted across the lawn. ‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together."
“I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever game him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end.”
4. Build the tension
Like that teetering Jenga block in the middle of the tower, the literary tension is high. We’ve fallen for this character, we sense something is about to happen (or not) and we’re waiting helplessly for the storm of sadness and pain and tears to come crashing down. The author has established a character, the reader has bonded, and a successful literary death is veering closer. At this point the build is key. Look to the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas as an example. Bruno, the son of a commander under Hitler, living in unsettling proximity to a concentration camp, befriends one of the prisoners, a young boy named Shmuel. Ignorant to their differing circumstances, Buno is intrigued by Shmuel’s funny pajamas and a friendship blooms between the two. Wanting to hang out on one side of the gate or another, Shmuel gets his hands on some prison garb sneaks Bruno into camp. When there is a roundup of Jews, Bruno is mistaken for a prisoner are taken off to the gas chamber.
Hamlet dies by way of poison tipped sword, Of Mice and Men’s Lennie by way of a gun at the hand of his friend, Camus’ Meursault (from The Stranger) is taken by an executioner – the list goes on. A death done right needs no gruesome bloody death, the lead up ultimately provides the greatest sense of loss. But, the sad cherry on top to getting a reader’s grief is a fitting death. Hamlet’s death serves as an answer to a questions he asks early on, ‘which is nobler? To suffer life, [t]he slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to seek to end it?” Lennie’s death brings an ironic note of mercy to a book filled with much abuse, labor and cruelty. Meursault’s death brings Camus’ absurdest notions full circle – that human life is only understood in the hands of death.
Of course, there are plenty of authors who don’t kill of their protagonist, and plenty more – like JK Rowling - who just couldn’t bear it. We’re thankful to the authors who’ve saved us from innumerable broken heart, but we also have to hand it to the authors that tore our hearts to pieces. Well done.
Featured image courtesy of jengibre.