Oh Noooooo!!!! Killing Off Major Characters

Kit HarringtonBy Elizabeth Shore

“I cried for forty minutes afterward.” That’s what one of my girlfriends told me after we emerged – wide-eyed and in utter disbelief –  after the Game of Thrones season finale a week and a half ago. Honestly, there was no other way we could react. In horrific, brutal, Shakespearean fashion, Jon Snow met his shocking demise, knifed to death by his gang of “brothers.” I’m not sure I’ve yet recovered.

Of course, those who watch the show and/or read his books know that George R.R. Martin‘s got a rep for doing that. “Don’t get too close to any of his characters” those in the know will warn you, “because he kills them off.” And I have to be honest, I hate that. And I sorta love it, too.

There’s nothing like a major character kill-off to shake readers out of complacency. Keep them on their toes. Just as they’ve settled in with one of the characters – they know his likes and dislikes, his quirks, his backstory, how he overcame near impossible odds to get where he is today – just as they’ve started hoping there are lots and lots more books with this or that character,  BLAMO! The rug is pulled out from under them and they’re reeling like an earthquake survivor emerging from the rubble. That character, the one they love, the one they could see themselves having dinner with, is dead. Killed. Game over.

What a f**king betrayal! All that time the reader has invested in the character and suddenly he’s as dead as last season’s cancelled TV shows. The reader is incensed. Outraged! They’ll never read another book by you again. Or will they?

The appeal of killing off a major character is multi-layered for the writer. You maintain your story’s freshness by not keeping the same people around forever. You insert a major plot twist with the character’s demise. You give yourself the opportunity to write hugely emotional scenes, including the death itself and subsequent character portrayals of them dealing with the fallout. Good, meaty stuff! But what about the poor suffering reader? The one who can do nothing but mourn the death? Have they been cheated by you, the writer, doing away with a major protagonist?

Of course they haven’t. What the reader benefits from is a story that’s not mundane, from a plotline that veers like a drunken sailor off the expected course. Authors who throw these monkey wrenches into their stories are making sure their audience never gets too comfortable and stays on the edge of their collective seats when reading those author’s books. That can be a good – and bad –  thing.

A major criticism of traditional romance is that’s it’s the polar opposite from unexpected. Readers are never going to be thrown for a loop by having the author kill off the hero because THAT’S NOT ALLOWED. And you know what? It’s A-OK by me.

Think about it this way. There’s no romance without a hero and heroine, right? It is, after all, why readers bother reading those books. They want romance. So you gotta keep your characters alive in order for them to have a relationship. Insight from Captain Obvious. And killing off a major character is obviously not the sole plot device we romance authors can use in order to keep our readers turning pages. But knowing that we’re forbidden from killing off major characters forces us to exercise creative muscle in order to maintain high reader engagement.

What do you think? Would you kill off a major character if you could? Do we need to allow romance writers more flexibility in making this decision so that our genre as a whole stays fresh? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below. And remember to enter our Lady Smut Book of Dark Desires giveaway!








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  • Liz Everly
    June 24, 2015 at 9:04 am

    No. I don’t think I could kill off a major character. But George does–and he is doing a lot better than me. Maybe I should get over it. 😉

    • Elizabeth Shore
      June 24, 2015 at 6:50 pm

      The thing is, with traditional romance, we’re not ALLOWED to kill off a major character, even if we wanted to. I’m wondering if there will ever be reader appetite for us to do that if we wanted to?

  • Kel
    June 24, 2015 at 2:01 pm

    I once read a romance where I disliked the “hero” so much that I wanted him dead.

    Seriously, I was rooting for his death – as promised if he ever touched the heroine pre-marriage – and was disappointed that he was the “valid” love interest and it wasn’t going to happen. I also very much disliked the heroine and thought she would have been improved by losing her love interest messily, having to tough out some serious tragedy, getting stranded somewhere, having to rescue herself, and learning something resembling a lifeskill before investigating a cute anyone other than the absolute waste of verbiage that was set up as her opposite character.

    I like human characters. I also like them to be useful humans…

    • Elizabeth Shore
      June 24, 2015 at 6:53 pm

      Agree completely, Kel. I’ve had the same experience where I disliked the hero so much it was inconceivable that the heroine would fall for such a jerk. And yet she did …

  • FT Sage
    June 24, 2015 at 3:04 pm

    Leaving aside that a lot of fans, (including myself) do not believe that Jon Snow is ‘completely’ dead (and the discussion of that point is too long for this comment.)…

    Killing off main characters with a lot of story to tell can and does work, especially if it propels the story forward all of the time.

    • Elizabeth Shore
      June 26, 2015 at 12:36 pm

      My feeling exactly, FT! My theory is that Melisandre showed up at the wall because she’s going to use her magic to bring back Jon. I sure hope so, at least. Because, really, the show without Jon Snow … oh no!

      • FT Sage
        June 26, 2015 at 2:08 pm

        Well, considering there is a good chance that ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ is Jon’s song, the story does seem to have a problem moving forward without him. 😉

  • Madeline Iva
    June 25, 2015 at 11:24 am

    On one hand it worked in Heaven Can Wait. Anything paranormal-y or fantasy-ish, you just never really really know. I think I’ve watched stuff thinking ‘Oh, they’re not really dead’ and then waited and waited and waited…

    • Elizabeth Shore
      June 26, 2015 at 12:36 pm

      As they say, good things come to those who wait … 🙂


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