I finished reading three stories this week in which the main character died. I didn’t plan it, it just happened.
In case you’re interested, the characters are:
- Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth. She accidentally committed suicide by overdosing on a “sleeping aid,” conveniently tying up the unraveling strands of her life.
- Delilah in Jennifer Roberson’s Sword Singer. Tragic and abrupt, it probably couldn’t have been handled in any other way. (Spoiler Alert: Okay, she really doesn’t die. But Roberson leaves you hanging like she does: The sword fight ends with Tiger lamenting that Del paid a very high price…and the final chapter sees him in the graveyard riding off alone. Well, what are you supposed to think?)
- Benjamin Button in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. (I’m interpreting this as death, but Button’s unmaking could probably be described better in scientific terms. Maybe he was simply un-born.)
Frankly, I call bullshit on principal characters who die.
(Especially when the story is first person, and the person telling it dies. But that’s a topic for another day…)
That being said, there are a lot of reasons to kill off main characters: they deserve it, they’ve lost their usefulness as a story tool, or – the best reason, in my opinion– to yank the reader’s chain. There’s nothing better than building up an awesome character and cutting short his life. It just tugs at the heartstrings of readers.
(Hello Ms. Roberson? Brava!)
Still, a character shouldn’t be killed off without good reason. And when there’s not a good reason, I call bullshit.
Benjamin and Delilah’s ‘death’ are well-justified, but I feel Wharton took the easy way out by killing off Lily. It’s convenient for her, because the story was really dragging on, and double convenient for Lily who had been cut off socially by friends and faced a woeful future of penury.
(I couldn’t wait to finish the book. If poor Lily would have defended her social position – she had the means – and discarded a bit of her pride, she would have fared much better. I don’t mind when a character makes stupid mistakes, but I can’t stand it when they make them over and over and over again. Makes me spitting mad.)
Here’s Your Prompt
- Write the death of your main character. You don’t have to include it in the book or story you’re writing. Consider this a character-interview of sorts. (And don’t let your character know what you’ve planned: it puts them in the position of doing all kinds of things they might not do if they didn’t know the end was coming.)
Some of you think I’m kidding. But, I’m not. Trust me on this.
- If you’re a poet: write a poem about death….but not tragic death. Write about heroic death.
- Memoirists: write about a death in the family over which some cloud hangs. Do some research to clarify details if you can.