Thursday, October 24, 2013

When is it okay for an author to kill off a beloved main character?

WARNING: I'm gonna talk explicitly about some deaths in some books here. No books published in the last year or two, other than the Bridget Jones catastrophe. But there is always the possibility you haven't read one of these books yet and might be disappointed if you read on. So don't say I didn't warn you!

So, there have been a few controversial slayings in literature lately, which has got me thinking about this question of When Is It Acceptable For An Author To Slay A Beloved Character?

Obviously it's always "acceptable" in the sense that the author can do whatever she damn well pleases with her own work. I'm not debating that question because it is a fundamental truth. But, just because an author has the authority to do it, does not in my view always mean it's a good choice or that it makes for good literature. For example, if the death appears to be purely for shock value, or if it seems like it could have been easily avoidable and is thus contrived so that the reader feels manipulated, then I would argue that it was a poor choice.

One of the deaths that got me thinking about this is one that happened recently and is a big thing. I won't even utter the book's title here for fear of spoiling it for people, but I'm sure some of you know what I'm talking about. I had it spoiled for me on Amazon, but I'm actually grateful for that. It made me glad I didn't read that book because I'm pretty sure I would not have been ok with that death and would have been annoyed that I wasted my time on such a book. Since I didn't read the book, I'm not going to debate it at length on here, but I'll just say from the reviews I read this one sounded like it was done for shock value more than anything else, which just seems like a cop out to me.

The other recent killing is of course the case of Mark Darcy of Bridget Jones. That one has been all over the news lately. It appears that Helen Fielding casually announces Darcy's death in the opening pages of the new Bridget Jones novel, Mad About the Boy. Now, I like Bridget Jones a lot. I am a huge fan actually and have watched the first movie at least a dozen times. I definitely would have bought the third book. But now, I am not so sure. I guess I should still give it a chance to see for myself if Bridget is still likable and endearing without Darcy in the picture...but, blegh. I just can't get excited about it and I think I'd prefer to pretend this book didn't exist.

Another book that I grew to hate because of the mass slaughter of beloved characters is Mockingjay. I realize people have a lot of different opinions on this one, but for me, it didn't work. It began to feel like gratuitous violence. I think the author was probably trying to make a statement about the horrors of war, how you do become numb to it after awhile, or something, I don't know, but to me it felt like some of these deaths served no purpose at all other than to make the reader think "wow Suzanne Collins is so ballsy killing off all these beloved characters, how RADICAL!" And after a point I just began to roll my eyes at it.

I would argue that The Fault in Our Stars (SPOILER WARNING!!!!) is an example of a book where killing off the main character absolutely does work. I guessed what was going to happen in the book pretty early on, but it didn't ruin it for me at all. It felt inevitable, in a good way, and it made for a richer story. I sobbed when it happened, but I didn't feel manipulated or cheated. It was the right way for that book to end.

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver (SPOILERZZZZ) is another one where the main character is offed at the end and I didn't mind in the slightest, even though I did weep bitterly. I loved this book. In it, the main character dies in a car crash in the first pages, and then through the book gets to relive over and over again (similar to Groundhog Day) the last day of her life. She starts off completely self absorbed, but by the 8th or 9th try at the day, she has grown as a person and ends up doing everything right. I admit I held out hope until the end that she would somehow figure out a way to avert her own death, as often happens in these paranormal-ish books, but she doesn't, and it's for the best. It would have felt cheesy if she had lived and I think would have undermined the quality of the book.

Similarly, The Last Summer of the Death Warriors. This is a modern day re-telling of Don Quixote, so it's not giving much away to say that one of the main characters (the one modeled after Don Quixote) winds up kicking it in the end. But it is so well done here. It definitely tears at your heart, but in the best way possible. If DQ hadn't died in this book, it would have felt absolutely ridiculous.

So those are some examples of killings that worked for me. What about you? Were you outraged by what went down in the last pages of Mockingjay? (I was.) Is it ever ok for a main character to die in a YA book or is that sacrilege because these books are supposed to be hopeful and happy? Or do we forfeit our right to complain altogether because the author has artistic liberty to do anything she likes? Share your opinion in the comments!


  1. The only time it's ok to kill off a MC (in my opinion) is when it's a realistic contemporary that's mainly about sickness or something. Or if the book has some sort of message about dealing with grief, etc. In dystopian/paranormal type books I see no reason to kill off the MCs. Secondary characters can die but not the MCs. I read for fun and so I want my HEA. People talk about how it's not realistic for the MCs to live during wartime and all of this horrible stuff that's happening, but I just don't care. If you read a book, especially a series where you've come to care about the MCs and then one of them is killed off, I just feel cheated and it's like the whole thing was pointless. I could rant awhile but I won't. ~Pam

    1. I think I agree. All the books I could think of where a MC dies and I didn't mind were "realistic contemporaries." I can't think of a dystopian or paranormal where a MC dies and it didn't feel contrived/for shock value. Doesn't mean it's not possible to do it right, probably -- I just can't think of a good example. Never Let Me Go? But that isn't YA. HMMMMMMM. Thanks for commenting!