Thursday, June 2, 2011

POV Characters Immortal or not?

    Hey everybody,

    Can, or rather, should you kill off a POV character in the middle of a book? Obviously it would be a mistake to kill a POV character in a one or two POV book. And, we all know that the bad guy can, and often does, die near the end of a book, that’s okay. But what if you have multiple POVs? Can you kill one of those?

    I’ve seen forum posts on this very thing and often, it depends, appeared somewhere in the post. It depends on how you treat it. It depends, does it further the plot? It depends on the phase of the moon. Well, maybe it does. But I’m going to take a stand and say, “Damn right you can, and you should. Why? Star Trek.

    That’s right, Star Trek. The original series with Captain Kirk and Spock and Bones and Scotty, that Star Trek. The greatest sci-fi series of it’s time and progenitor of movies, tv series, action figures, and worldwide conventions. But, Star Trek had a flaw.

    Only the guys in the red shirts that you’d never seen before ever died. Oh sure, every now and then a main character was put in mortal danger but you knew they weren’t going to croak. You knew it beyond a shadow of a doubt so, no matter how artfully contrived the pickle, your fear and dread were less than they could have been. Now, I understand that sort of thing is a constraint of an ongoing tv series but we aren’t writing a tv series. Even if we are writing a series of novels, I would argue that you have to kill a main character once in awhile and, if you have multiple POVs, you ought to kill one of them.

    The argument against killing POV characters seems to be that you might upset the reader. Okay, that may play in certain genres where there is an expectation of a ‘happily ever after’ ending. But fantasy, my genre, isn’t one of those.

    Killing a POV character changes the dynamic for the reader. The reader, once invested in the characters, will fear more for them. Tension will increase if anyone in the cast can die. The momentary, “Crap! I liked that guy.” reaction will soon be overcome by the need to find out if the rest of them make it. The reader will have to see what peril the rest of them face. Will they overcome or succumb?

    I have a novel that needs a lot of work. It’s the first one I wrote and it’s sitting in a drawer, and on my hard-drive, and on a couple sticks and one day I’ll pull it out and work on it. Many things will change; the antagonist needs some redeeming qualities, the protagonists need some work, I might pull a few scenes and write new ones. The one thing that will not change is the title character being killed two thirds of the way though. He dies for a reason and that reason is central to the book. He dies to demonstrate to the readers and the characters that the danger is real and imminent. He dies to demonstrate that his plan, no matter how vital and necessary, is likely to get some, maybe all of them, killed. And that, even should the plan fail, they must try again, no matter the cost. 

    That’s a pretty good reason to kill him. But I don’t need one that good. POV characters find themselves in threatening situations all the time, They can’t survive them all. If they all do all the time, the story will become predictable just like Star Trek. I don’t want any guys in red shirts in my books. POV characters will never get a free pass in my books. But those are my books.

    What do you think as a writer? As a reader? I’d love to hear it.


  1. I'm with you, though as a reader/viewer I value unpredictability a lot more than many people do, so I know that my tastes aren't always generalizable.

    But if a POV scene = immortality, it seems things would be less interesting.

  2. ah, man...this romance reader and writer hates it when a character I'm invested in dies. I mean I hates it, hates it, hates it. No matter which genre I'm reading.

    But then I'm one of those people who turn their heads and close their eyes whenever anything too upsetting, bloody, mean or scary happens on the tv screen. I don't laugh, I squirm in a movie theater if the protagonist does something extremely embarrassing. I want to leave the theater to keep from sharing that agony with the rest of the audience.

    Real life is hard enough. When I'm being entertained, give me predictable. Give me a happy ending. Give me escape. Please, please, please don't kill my friends or, God forbid, any animals.


    your loving, and very predictable wife who refuses to watch sad movies

  3. Pillars of the Earth did that to me. Tom the Builder died and I almost didn't finish reading because I thought he was the anchor of the story. Turns out it was about other people too, but I didn't like them as much as Tom, so it really upset me.

  4. Sometimes you must kill your babies. I can't remember who said that or even what they said it about. It had something to do with writing and it works here.

    I think the author was trying to upset and he succeeded brilliantly.

    So, two for, two against. Well have to wait and see.

  5. Each story is different as it should be. In book one of my fantasy series, the villain dies as most suspect he would. However, there's an unexpected twist. I set it up so the reader will know that in book two, the villain might come back. Fantasy is so much fun.

  6. Hell yes! You're the writer. Kill whoever you want, whenever you want. Then again, I made the mistake of entering a contest with a POV I spent two chapters to get people to love, then killed her in a plane crash. Needless to say I didn't do so well in the contest.

    Nancy probably remembers that one.

    Kept her little girl alive though...I don't whack kids. Unless... B^)

  7. No; not unless you have a viable character to take up the position; someone the reader has already bonded with, and thinks of as the next leader. Or at least make the character's death mean something essential to the overall fulfillment of the plot. The sacrifice has to equal the emotiional investment.

    Your reasoning for killing off this POV character seems valid. It will cause growth not only to the story, but to several secondary characters, and for the reader. Killing off beloved POV characters is a tricky business, but if the plot calls for it, the author must make the sacrifice meaningful.

    Oh, I almost stopped watching Star Trek when I figured out only the red shirts die. And the death rarely meant anything to the story plot. It was just attention grabbing action.

    Well, I have to give Gene Roddenberry his props; his productions grew with his expanding viewer needs. The story line and plots matured as he gained experience.

    Readers/viewers are so much more involved with their world now, and thus a simplistic plot concept doesn't suffice. The author needs to keep up with the expectations of the readers.

    Make the death count for something. Plot progress or character growth.


  8. Your post made me think of something, Donna.

    Readers care little about red shirt type characters. We don't know them and won't miss them much. Now, killing red shirts can demonstrate the evilness of a villain or cause emotional upheaval to another character. That's a legitimate use. But...

    if killing 'red shirt' characters has little impact on the reader, would it not be better to kill someone that will have an impact on the reader.

  9. Yeah, I think so. But again, killing off a well liked character has to be appropriate to the plot. To further a cause, or to assist another character's growth.

    If you kill off a "red shirt" character just to show the villian doesn't care who he kills, then to me, the author is just "telling" the reader he doesn't mind killing characters. Readers usually know the villian is a bad person; gratuitious murder is like gratuitious sex; it loses its impact without the emotional attachment.

    This is an excellent discussion topic; when and when not to kill. I think the set up is the key.


  10. I think killing and the way they do it helps define just what kind of antagonist you have.

    In my first novel my antagonist didn't kill any people, he liked to think he was a bad ass, someone not to be trifled with but he killed no humans. He did kill the title character but that was a wyvern.

    In my current novel, my antagonist is a sociopath. She kills lots of people without a moment's remorse. However, she loves animals and has tremendous empathy for them.

    I think killing to define the villain is legitimate.

    Killing can be used for many things. But I agree it can be overdone.

    However, when he was writing 'The Stand', Stephen King set off a bomb to get rid of some characters because he was stuck. He had too much going on and needed to thin the herd. So, killing can also be a catalyst for the writer and a problem solving tool. ;)

  11. I think if you kill off a POV character, especially one who is more like-able, you'd better have a good reason for doing so. In the novel "Impact" by Douglas Preston, he kills off one of his two protagonists (the more interesting one) and I was so upset I almost put the book down. So be sure that the surviving POV character is stronger, more rounded, or has more redeeming qualities. Make sure the one you kill off is clearly secondary.
    On the other hand, in "The Ruins" by Scott Smith, (spoil alert) everyone dies one by one and you care about them all. It was excruciating and so well done that by the end you kept wanting to read more. There were four POV characters and a few other non POV, but still, I couldn't put it down. So I say, kill away...just watch how you do it.

    Phyllis Neher