How to kill your hero

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SPOILER ALERT: The following includes spoilers for City ofAngels(Sparks), Message in a Bottle (Sparks), A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens), The Brothers Bloom (movie), and Stranger Than Fiction (movie).



I’ve blogged about sadism, I’ve blogged about happy vs. sad endings, but this recent InMon piece from LoveTheBadGuy made me want to hit on a more specific topic:

When—and how—to kill a main character. Because sometimes you have to.

But here’s the thing: if you find yourself choosing between preserving the integrity of the story, and pleasing your readers—you are doing something wrong. Readers (the only ones you care about, anyway) will only be pleased if you preserve the integrity of the story.

Or maybe you just want to avoid the clichéd happy ending. But if the ending is that predictable, the ending isn’t the problem; the rest of the book is. Killing the hero because letting him live is cliché is like painting your daughter’s nursery black because pink is cliché. It’s a stunt. Controversy for its own sake, instead of what’s good for the story.

What you’re really looking for is surprise—a twist the readers weren’t expecting. But ask yourself what kind of surprise you’re giving them—good or bad?

Nicholas Sparks’s Unfailing Examples:

  • An angel falls in love with a human, eventually decides to become human himself, so they are finally free to be together when suddenly she gets hit by a car.
  • A reporter finds a heartbreakingly romantic message in a bottle and goes on a search to find its writer, who turns out to be a rugged sailor in the throes of depression over the death of his wife. As he finally opens himself up to love again, he suddenly dies in a shipwreck.

We’re on the edge of our seats rooting for these people to get together, and then—whammo! Sorry, kids, here comes the rainy funeral scene!

Two Reasons This Sucks:

1. While many people like sad endings, nobody likes rude surprises.

2. It’s the same as the pot-bellied uncle who begs “gimme five,” and pulls his hand back at the instant you go to slap it. It’s not clever. It’s just mean.

The Surprise Death

If the death must be a surprise, then it must be meaningful, and the whole story should lead up to it.

When Sydney Carton dies in A Tale of Two Cities, we look back and see that his resemblance to Charles Darnay, his love for Darnay’s wife, and his regret that he has wasted his life, all lead him to give his life for Darnay, so Darnay and wife can live happily ever after.

The Brothers Bloom appears to be a charming heist movie—we aren’t expecting any good guys to die. Bloom, who has wanted out of the crime business for a long time, reluctantly follows his big brother, Stephen, into yet another con. Bloom doesn’t discover until the end that the con involved Stephen sacrificing himself to get Bloom out of the business for good—with a pretty girl, to boot.

“You don’t understand what my brother does. He writes his cons the way dead Russians write novels, with thematic arcs and embedded symbolism and s****. And he wrote me as the vulnerable anti-hero. And that’s why you think you want to kiss me. It’s a con.”

 – Bloom in The Brothers Bloom

The Expected Death

“The woman I loved is…dead.”

–         Christian narrating the beginning of Moulin Rouge

Like all of Sparks’s books, Moulin Rouge tells the story of two unlikely lovers who overcome multiple obstacles to be together—until one of them up and dies at the end, for no apparent reason. The difference? Moulin Rouge warns us at the very beginning. Do I miss the thrill of not knowing? No, because instead of holding out for a last-minute victory and then being sorely disappointed, I’m free to enjoy the story for what it is—a beautiful tragedy.

The Surprise Survival!

Or you can turn it around and hint—even state outright—that you are going to kill your hero, and then up and save him. Happy surprise! But be careful; the same rule for the surprise death applies for the surprise survival: it must make sense. In Stranger Than Fiction, for instance, Eiffel saved Harold Crick with his wrist watch, which had itself been a character since the beginning.

 

Hilbert: Why did you change the book?
Eiffel: Lots of reasons. I realized I just couldn’t do it.

Hilbert: Because he’s real? 
Eiffel: Because it’s a book about a man who doesn’t know he’s about to die. And then dies. But if a man does know he’s about to die and dies anyway. Dies- dies willingly, knowing that he could stop it, then- I mean, isn’t that the type of man who you want to keep alive? 

–         from the final scene of Stranger Than Fiction

Agree? Disagree? Tell me why in the comments!

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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13 Comments

  1. (I saw the unexpected ping-back on my dashboard and thought, “What the heck is that?”. I’m glad that it inspired some further food for thought!)

    I have been told often that I write and read depressing stories. While I have not read any of Sparks’ work, I must admit that the two ending’s that you have summarised sound spectacular!

    Don’t get me wrong – I am not against a happy ending. They leave us with a smile on our face, and we are able to imagine for ourselves where the hero(es) will go from here. But on occasion (or should I say, “usually”?) I like it when there is no happily-ever-after, when we see the struggles of the world, and are faced with the brutal reminder that sometimes life simply sucks, and that is something we must overcome.

    (Wow… I am dark, aren’t I?) 😉

    Another example that I thought of while reading this post was Piccoult’s “My Sister’s Keeper”. If you have read it, or seen the film, then you’ll know the brutal ending that the reader is faced with. It was an ending that made me cry, and yet I utterly loved it.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I need to go stare at rainbows or pat some kittens or some equally un-depressing things…

    • I admit to not having read any of Spark’s work either, but have unwittingly succumbed to watching movie adaptations three or four times (never again!). I agree with your “sometimes life simply sucks” – I simply prefer a story that focuses on the overcoming part.

      I’ve heard of My Sister’s Keeper. I’ve been avoiding it. I cry at almost all movies (even Earnest Saves Christmas), so I’m likely to sob at that one. Who knows what the book would do to me…

      Thank you for inspiring me to write this post! I’m curious what your opinion is about sad endings you know are coming vs. sad endings that surprise you?

      • Ooh, that’s a tough one.

        Sad endings that you are expecting are probably “kinder”, because you can simply NOT READ if you don’t want that kind of ending – if you choose to read a book called “Before I Die” about a sixteen year old with terminal cancer, then you will have only yourself to blame when you sob helplessly at the end. (Yes, speaking from experience…)

        But then, I personally am, as I’ve already said, a fan of the dark, depressing, oh-my-god-how-could-you-end-it-like-that-I-think-I-need-to-go-eat-a-ton-of-chocolate-and-cry type books. So when the sad ending comes out of the blue, I’ll cry and mourn and rue the day I cracked the spine of that particular book, a part of me will quite appreciate the ending in hindsight.

        …But to balance out all this pessimism, I am also a fan of Disney movies. Not a sad ending in sight! 😉

  2. My house-mate can attest that I actually said “preach it, sista!” at one point, while reading this. I will leave it to you to decide which part, but I will hand this over to my housemate to verify what I have said. 🙂

    Hello! I am said housemate. Whilst sitting on the futon, wrapped in a Mexican blanket, she began chuckling to herself, slapped her knee, and raised a fist while saying, ‘Preach it, sista!’.

    Aaaaand, this is me again, not housemate. It is encouraging to me that I am not the only one who has the same views on “character assassination.” For the good of the story!

    I see lovethebadguy’s point about unhappy endings but I find myself, just barely, in the camp of those who believe that the nasty state of the world is precisely why we need happy endings. Perhaps “hopeful” is a better word than “happy,” as I am against too-“perfect” endings. Depressive people like me don’t need help seeing the world as a dark and painful place. We need help seeing the hope through the darkness.

    • Yes! Exactly! Actually, the darker the middle, the better; even a bittersweet ending can be glorious after that. I’m so glad that, as a recovered (recovering?) cynic, you agree with me. Maybe (just maybe) that means I’m not a completely sappy optimist. When you and I are finished with the world, “realism” will be associated more with optimism than with cynicism!

      Say hello to your housemate for me!

      Also, can I get an amen? ; )

      • Amen! ^_~

        Mostly recovered, I would say. Part of the recovery process was the realization that cynicism and pessimism are as unrealistic as pure optimism. It comes down to recognizing that, in this world, good and bad are both present, and one should not be blind to the existence of either. That is why I agree with you about the dark middle, but a light at the end. It doesn’t even have to be “the good flourish, the bad are punished and everyone lives happily ever after” (in fact I dislike such endings in most contexts), but an ending that admits to the existence of good and hope, is more realistic, to me, than a hopeless one.
        I look forward to optimism becoming realism. That, too, will be sweeter, I think, for having struggled. I read a chapter from G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy recently, that talks about optimism and pessimism. It floored me.

        I will! She will appreciate that. 🙂

  3. I hate that Hollywood happy ending, It’s not that I only read ‘dark’ novels or anything like that, just that I feel literature should be about life and/or humanity. Hardly anyone ‘wins’ in life, lots of people fall, forgotten, by the wayside. I just want literature to be a better mirror for life and maybe reflect a touch of reality sometimes instead of the glow of a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.

    • Ah, Chris, what shall we do with you? A realist would say “not everyone wins in life,” but it’s cynical to say that hardly anyone wins.

      I agree that the sugary-perfect Hollywood ending is far from ideal. I prefer to see the characters suffer and struggle and, yes, even lose–but at the end there should be some victory.

      Look at The Pursuit of Happyness – a movie about a man who goes broke (due mostly to bad luck and perhaps a few poor, though honest, decisions), which results in his wife leaving, and him becoming homeless–with a young son to look after. The movie is painful to watch because of all he goes through to stay off the streets, keep his son fed and in school, all the while working his butt off (as an unpaid intern) trying to get a job. But in the end, despite multiple setbacks, he gets the job. It’s not a perfect ending–his wife doesn’t come back, he doesn’t meet someone new, the boss doesn’t randomly give him a Ferrari–but there is victory. And here’s the part you should take note of: it’s based on true story.

      Victory. Even a small victory. That’s all I ask from fiction.

      Thank you for joining in the conversation!

  4. Pingback: I’m still alive! « BeKindRewrite

  5. Yes, the title is “Orthodoxy.” http://www.leaderu.com/cyber/books/orthodoxy/orthodoxy.html
    I have yet to read the whole thing, but I plan to start when I have days off for Christmas. The chapter I have read and mentioned is chapter 5.

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