Kill the character?

I’ve discovered there’s a brouhaha among Karin Slaughter’s readers, some of whom are not happy that she killed off a major character in her most recent novel, BEYOND REACH.  Reading the comments on the discussion board, I’ve learned that: 1. Angry readers can be very scary people, and 2. Killing a main character has consequences.

I’m reminded of Arthur Conan Doyle and his ill-fated decision to kill off (temporarily at least) his beloved character Sherlock Holmes.  The firestorm of readers’ protests eventually forced Conan Doyle to resurrect Holmes in a later story, where he explained that Holmes had miraculously survived that fatal tumble over the falls.

At least he didn’t resort to the lame “Dallas” explanation: “It was all a dream.”

As a mystery writer, I regularly kill off characters.  Most of the time, those dead characters aren’t people my readers have grown attached to, or they die in the first act, before we get to know them.  If the character is particularly likeable, it’s painful for an author to kill him off, although I’ve done it on more than one occasion.  In GRAVITY, officials in Mission Control have only moments to decide whether to blow up a spacecraft and kill the astronaut riding inside it.  Their struggle to make that inevitable decision is all the more dramatic because the astronaut they’re condemning to death is a lovable guy.  But Misson Control has no choice.  He’s only a secondary character, but because I grew to care about him, his death was one of the most devastating scenes I’ve ever had to write. 

In THE SURGEON, I was fully prepared to kill off Jane Rizzoli.  She was, in fact, supposed to die in the climactic scene in the cellar.  She wasn’t the major character; she was only a secondary character, and not a particularly likeable one, so killing her wouldn’t have broken any hearts.  But as I was about to perform the coup de gras on her … something stopped me.  You know what it was? She’d grown on me. She had so much heart, she’d faced so many struggles, that to end her life there struck me as appallingly unfair.  So I let her live. (And I’m damn glad I did.) 

But in BONE GARDEN, a major character does die toward the end.  A number of my readers have written to tell me how shocked and moved they were by that death, but no one has yet expressed any anger about it.  Everyone seems to understand that it was necessary to the plot. They also understand that the death was integral to the major theme in the book: that wrongs committed in the past can somehow be redeemed by what people do in the future. Yes, the death was painful to write.  Yes, I hesitated to do it. But without that death, the tale would lose its power.  I also made sure I gave my readers the chance to process the tragedy, by allowing the book to coast on for a few chapters longer than I normally would after the mystery was solved. It gave my characters time to grieve as well, and to eventually look back on the death with a sense of perspective.  When the book ended, I wanted my readers not to feel grief and dismay, but a bittersweet and healing sense that, yes, life would go on. 

One of my favorite books of all time is LONESOME DOVE.  At the end of it, one of the two main characters dies and I remember sobbing in disbelief after it happened. Was his death necessary to the plot? Not really; he could have ridden off into the sunset, and the story still would have had a satisfactory resolution.  But McMurtry chose to kill him, and initially I felt betrayed. He also did something very wise: he didn’t end the book abruptly, but gave me time to grieve.  He gave me time with the surviving characters and let me see how the death would affect their lives for the better.  It was a masterful way to end the story.

Killing a major character can be a courageous artistic move … or it can be a disastrous one.  The difference is in a writer’s reason for doing it.  Is it merely to shock?  Is it to merely to get rid of a character you’ve grown tired of?  Then you’re probably going to have legions of angry readers writing you hate mail.  But if the character’s demise sets off its own dramatic chain of events, or if it’s necessary to the theme of your story, then you may have to do it. 

And hope that your readers will understand — and forgive you for it.

30 replies
  1. 6798maria
    6798maria says:

    Im very happy that you decided not to kill Jane Rizolli, I really wish you would write another book involving her character, I think there is a lot of things that were left open in her life, (like her mom and dads situation) that I would like to see resolved. Do you yet know when your next book will be ready (not pushing or anything). just cannot read other authors after I have read your books. Happy New year!!

  2. Cherlyn
    Cherlyn says:

    I’m currently dealing with this for my current project. This posting has given me a lot to consider. 🙂

  3. Felicia Donovan
    Felicia Donovan says:

    This same topic caused quite the chasm on another blog. Lines were drawn, opinions rendered, emotions flared.

    What I object to is killing off a character for sensationalistic reasons. It’s why I don’t watch most TV. As you said, McMurty used the ploy effectively. It’s a device that needs to be rendered carefully – to extend the story emotionally, to allow the reader to think about consequences. If it’s done to create buzz about a book, it’s a lousy reason to do it. I would never think of killing off any of my Black Widows. You, however, could pull off this device and do it well. (And I, too, am glad you thought twice about offing Dear Jane.)

    Felicia Donovan

  4. knaster
    knaster says:

    Hi Tess,

    Sometimes the killing of a main character, or even a secondary character is necessary to introduce another that would be pertinent to the the upcoming plot.
    If you remember the episode of Dallas when JR got shot? Did anybody care if he died or not? NO! We all wanted to just know who the hell shot him.
    Jane Rizzoli and Laura Isles and mainstays of Tess’ books. They keep the reader fastened to the page, and they can’t wait to see what transpires next. I’m glad Tess decided to let her live.
    Let’s think twice before we criticize an author for who they do or do not kill in their stories. We may not like it, but isn’t the reason we buy a certain autor is because of the content rather than the concept behind it?
    Tess is in a league of a very few (in my opinion, Steven King and John Grisham included) that DO hold their readers’ interest and all I can say is…Thank you, Tess. You are truly an autor that readers can be very proud to call the best so the best. (Sorry Mr. King and Mr. Grisham).
    A happy and a healthy New Year to you and your family, Tess. May 2008 be your best ever.
    (oh, our “Gerritsen-sational” party raised $2,000 to the pediatric cancer center of St. Judes Hospital)

  5. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    cormac mccarthy kills off some of the most admirable characters in his novels and often not the most miserable ones-they just go off about their business-in his novel Blood Meridian there is only one character of importance that survives and it’s the one you wouldn’t want to-sometimes it seems to me that the most evil chracters in his books have a sort of invulnerability about them that ensuress their survival-after what life forms above microscpic size have survived the longest on earth?scorpions and cockroaches-‘nuf said 🙂

  6. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    What is interesting is how some authors have become known for killing thier lead characters. Look at Shaun Hutson, until recently he’s nearly always killed them off no matter what. Its a case of doing something that allows the reader to greive as Tess has previously stated. Would David Gemmell’s Legend have had its power if Druss had lived? I doubt it but the real heroes of that book weren’t in the warriors, it was the farmers who had gone to fight for their families.

    All the best,


  7. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    An author killing off a character in a stand alone book differs greatly from an author killing off a major character in a series. Stephen King killed off so many characters I cared about, it became a treat when one made it all the way to the end without dying. 🙂

  8. Mary Duncan
    Mary Duncan says:

    I, too, have had to struggle with the death of many of my major characters in my book. There are those who ask why, but in historical fiction and in war…all is fair. My protagonist can speak with her dearly departed though, so readers still feel like they live. Towards the end of writing my books, my editors take the new chapters and with a cringe, ask, “Who dies?”
    What we do for drama!
    If they had lived, would the story have been as tense? Nope. So I say, off with their heads!
    Happy New Year, Tess!

  9. tuttle
    tuttle says:

    Actually there are quite alot of fans out in the real world who LOVE characters (television, movie or literary)so much that when the fictional character gets ‘killed off’ it affects them far more than it would other fans who ‘understand’ the concept of fiction and the need for a writer/actor/director etc to move on and try new things.

    But with many things in life, we, as creators, have to deal with those fans who ‘live’ in our created realities as well as the rest of humanity that can distinguish between fiction and reality.

    Happy New Year to all

  10. Kristin G
    Kristin G says:

    Personally, I really like books and movies that are brave enough to surprise me and kill off a main character. It is more ‘real’ to me than to read every main character in a book/movie managed to survive some horrific ordeal.

    When Scarlett and Rhett’s child died in “Gone With the Wind,” I was shocked. I was devastated that Margaret Mitchell would do that to my favorite couple. And I’ll admit it, I cried. Why did she have to kill an innocent child? But without that death, the end of the book would not be as meaningful. I’m sure many people think the book could have ended the same way without Bonnie Blue’s death…maybe so. But it wouldn’t have been as strong an ending. When that happened, I got it. I understood the relationship between Rhett & Scarlett that much better.

    So I think authors have to ignore some fans. Some fans want all books to have picture perfect endings where everything turns out okay always. I don’t. I like emotional impact. I like to feel like I’ve made a journey with these characters and survived something, too. Books like that are the ones I remember. The ones that make an impact in my life.

  11. john lovell
    john lovell says:

    Like Joe Bernstein (above), I immediately thought of
    Cormac McCarthy’s tendency to kill off admirable characters. I think the best example, though, may be “No Country for Old Men,” in which the central villain prevails after killing one of the novel’s good guys (one of many victims, including, finally, this good guy’s new widow) and gets away unpunished. We’re left to ponder an increasingly evil world in which an aging law enforcement officer feels increasingly out of place, though he survives in it. When I was writing newspaper features, I often looked for some aspect of redemption in such stories, but I didn’t always find it.
    —John Lovell

  12. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    Hey Tess,

    Would you ever consider killing the MAIN character? I had intended to do so in my novel, and brought that idea with me to Maui, but everyone in my group HATED it! They literally yelled at me when I told them… Would you ever let one of the baddies in your novels win?

  13. therese
    therese says:

    Hi Tess!

    Killing off a main character is often necessary when the story contains a strong theme regarding transformation. As has already been stated in these comments, using the death for the reader and the remaining characters to grieve then be transformed either in circumstance, spirit or strength is the type of powerful writing readers need.

    The event causing the death, processing done by surviving characters and twist at the end in The Bone Garden was not only well done but very pleasing to me. I also felt, considering the time frame and the topics of the story line, highly appropriate.

    I still enjoy watching M*A*S*H reruns and remember when Col. Blake died in the plane crash on his way home. It was a huge surprise and devastating to viewers and characters. However, what the show became after that event was, exceptional.

    Recently I was part of a brainstorming discussion and one of the authors was developing a mad-cap mystery around a dog-grooming salon where “they” started turning up “dead”. I asked who, owners or dogs? This generated a flurry of comments and ideas because the people had to be the ones dying, not the dogs. I found this fascinating since I was planning the death of a dog in the book I was developing, but didn’t tell…

    That said, I think the current news warrants the need for masterful writers to give readers the opportunity to grieve for admirable characters, in case those same readers are able to watch real-life horrors without shedding a tear. The primary purpose of story is the emotional connection. That’s why the good stories remain a ‘must-read’ for many years.

    Happy New Year!

  14. Frederick Smith
    Frederick Smith says:

    I’m dealing with this in my latest project, and though I haven’t had any scary reader stories/responses, I have gotten the blank, “The ending… I wasn’t expecting.”

    While a character death, or near-death experience, can be traumatic for readers, I would hope they will understand that as writers having this kind of experience is often necessary to create future story… or even to provide resolution/redemption to a character/situation that might be challenging otherwise.

    Great post. I feel like I can finally find some “venting space” around this issue.

  15. Tom Young
    Tom Young says:

    WoW, I guess I’ve never gotten into a book or series that much that I was ever affected by the death of a ‘main’ character. In my writings though, no one has yet to die, well and actually die, since he was bitten by a vampyre and re-born so to speak as he was dying… LOL

    I think if you ever did kill off a main character, Dr Isles or Det. Rizzoli, I’d probably miss them, I admitt I was a little surprised they didn’t play bigger parts in THE BONE GARDEN, but it was still a wonderful book to read.


  16. Allison Brennan
    Allison Brennan says:

    I killed off a major secondary character in my first book. I knew killing off major characters could cause problems, but the truth is I didn’t plan on it. It happened, and it made the book stronger. Not everyone liked it, but most people who grumbled agreed that the death worked in the book, that it raised the stakes and letting him live would have been contrived.

    In my second book I fully planned on killing Sheriff Nick Thomas. But I couldn’t. He just wasn’t ready to go, and I’m also glad because he because a hero in a future book.

    I just hope readers don’t know what to expect. Because I write romantic suspense, they know the hero and heroine will survive–it’s part of the genre. But anything else goes. Karin Slaughter–one of my favorite authors–writes straight suspense so I don’t fault her for story choices. I have the book on my TBR shelf. 🙂

  17. Sharmaine
    Sharmaine says:

    I just finished Gravity (which I loved!) and yes, while the death of Luther was really distressing, it really couldn’t be avoided because of the motivations of the major players. It would have been out of character for the gov’t officials to let the CRV come down.

    But when authors kill off characters, you (the reader) usually don’t think about the impact on the plot – at least not with the good stories. That’s why it’s especially effective when we’re given time to contemplate and tie at least a few loose ends towards the conclusion of a book.

    And I’m really glad Jane is still around to kick butt.

  18. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    of course not being a writer i may be speaking from ignorance here,but i don’t think killing off a series character is the same as one in a stand alone novel-the series chracter becomes connected to many readers who have expectations of more to come-a character in a one time novel is just there for the moment(could be a long moment)-denis johnson does something different -he kills off the main character in one one novel and brings him back in flashback as a minor character in a subsequent novel

  19. Tatiana
    Tatiana says:

    Arrrrgh! Spoiler alert in future, please?

    I got your book for Christmas and, due to 8-month course instructors assigning projects over the break, have not had time to sit down and read it (I know I won’t want to put it down, so I won’t start it until I can read it through without deadlines interrupting).

  20. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:


    Until recently, the only character I recall grieving over was Catherine at the end of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

    Now I have to add (SPOILER!) at the end of The Bone Garden to my list. 🙂

  21. Susan Kelley
    Susan Kelley says:

    I think Karin’s books are more suspense, but she built the romance between two of her main characters over the course of many books. She did such a wonderful job with their relationship, many romance readers fell in love with them. But it wasn’t a romance. I hope her readers recover from the shock. I’ve never killed off a ‘main’ character but everyone else is eligible to be ‘plot fodder.’

  22. vividexpression
    vividexpression says:

    Honestly, I thought Jane was going to die in The Surgeon and was slightly surprised when she didn’t. I’m glad you didn’t kill her off, though!

    I’m finally reading The Bone Garden and really enjoying it. 🙂

  23. saetter
    saetter says:

    Tess, give George Martin’s Game of Thrones a read. NO character is safe in his books. 🙂 It adds a nice level of suspense to a story when you (the reader) feel that the characters are really in danger of dying. Nothing like killing off the apparent hero to shake things up.


  24. patry
    patry says:

    I can’t remember the last time I actually cried at the end of the book, but that character in THE BONE GARDEN was so fully realized and wonderful, the loss felt equally real–and so did the grief.

    As you know, I’ve loved all your novels, but THE BONE GARDEN is my favorite. Those characters will be with me forever.

  25. T.Jones
    T.Jones says:

    Tess – I just finished the Bone Garden. I was surprised that you did kill off one of the major characters, but you carried the story on after the demise to let me grieve. I think it was one of your best pieces of work, so don’t worry about the critics, just write what is in your heart

  26. Niki Maita
    Niki Maita says:

    I too thought Jane was going to die in THE SURGEON. I was suprised she didn’t, but I’m also greatful to see her as the main character in many of your other books. She is thus far my favorite. 🙂

  27. Caryn C
    Caryn C says:

    I just discovered this site and read all about how Jane was almost killed!! I am so glad she is still alive..I love her!! I am just hoping Maura will find her happiness. Jane must live!!! I love her..

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