So, you’ve spent days, weeks, months and maybe even years creating your protagonist. You know everything about them. What they wear, their shoe size, what motivates them, what scares them. You’ve invested a large chunk of your own existence in them. To you, they are as real as the guy sitting next to you on the bus.
Then, out of the blue, you wonder… What happens if he (or she) dies?
The Protagonist is the lifeblood of a story. Together with your antagonist and their conflict, you build a whole new world. Sometimes though, unpredictable things happen and people die. As an author are you brave enough to take the ultimate leap of faith and kill off your main character?
There are several examples of this used to absolute perfection. If you are a fan of Games of Thrones but haven’t finished the first book or watched the first Season finale, then look away now. Those who do know what I am about to refer to; do you remember the complete shock of seeing that main character die? That doesn’t happen, right? You’ve listened to his tale, you’ve shared in his decisions. You might even say you have an intimate relationship with him, and Bham! he’s gone. Just like that. How is that right?
Likewise, when watching Deep Blue Sea (There’s super-intelligent-killer sharks, but that’s not the important bit). You spend a large part of the movie comfortably watching the protagonist step up and take the lead. He might not want to be there, but he’s big enough to do it anyway, because they sure as hell aren’t getting out of this life of death situation with- Bham! He’s gone.
I have a huge amount of respect for any author/producer that can pull this tactic off. Not just for the sheer cleverness of it, but because it must be a very difficult decision to make. As an author, can we be confident enough in our supporting characters to step up and take the lead without the story falling over and losing credibility. Will our readers protest, throw the book down and declare never to read our work again.
It’s a fantastic hook, the ultimate bait and switch. It’s also very mean. There are a number of conventions that are assumed in the entertainment world; one of them being, the main character doesn’t die. We all watch movies and read books safe in the knowledge that the person we’re rooting for generally survives until the end. Only when his/her story has been told can they die. It’s the rules. Those rules keep us warm and fuzzy, they make us feel safe. When that rug is pulled out from under our feet and those rules are tossed out the window, suddenly we don’t feel safe any more and anything can happen. It’s a betrayal, but it’s also a life-lesson. Real life doesn’t wait for the conclusion before dropping a tragedy on us.
Killing off the apparent protagonist throws a great chunk of reality down in the ring and says ‘there you go, now nothing is sacred’. I love it, but it’s a dangerous game. So, hats off to those great authors out there that have left us all in pieces. Thank you for surprising us. We hate you and love you for doing it.