Is it ever okay to kill off a series character, or is that a career killer?

I’ve thought about this from time to time. JK Rowling managed to kill off beloved series characters in the books, and still sell millions upon millions.

Conversely, when Ian Rankin was in Canada a few years ago, I saw a televised special with him where a woman almost burst into tears as she declared that every book she feared it would be the one where he killed Rebus.

More recently, I’ve seen extreme reactions to books where a series character has been killed.

Now, personally, I can talk out of both sides of my mouth. I look at Rowling and think how brave she was to do what she felt needed to be done. I also think she was smart, in that she forewarned readers of the fact that a character would die before the book was released. I suppose it minimizes the shock.

But I look at some writers I don’t follow, and when I see readers venting rage at them I wonder about the decision. I’m not surprised people are upset…

On the other hand, I think a fitting ending to the Rebus series would be with his death. And Siobhan standing over his grave and then she feels the baby move. (Yes, I’m evil.)

I’m just beginning a series, so I can’t even imagine being in a position to consider voluntarily ending one after ten, twelve, fifteen books, or twenty years writing those characters.

Would you consider killing off a series character? Would the death of a character you love turn you off an author… or would it depend on how they handled it? How much should writers consider the feelings of fans when it comes to making life and death decisions in the stories?

I’ll admit it – I was partially inspired by the recent announcement that Jorja Fox is leaving CSI. Now, I’m not a CSI junkie the way some people are, but I have already found myself debating how they’ll write her out… seems to me death is the probable option.

And if any of you have killed off a series character, was it a hard choice, and how did readers take it?

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You might be braver than me! I find that when I have to face a situation where I'm going to put one of my protagonists in pain, I dread writing it. I actually slow down, procrastinate. I recently went through this, and couldn't figure out what the problem was, until i realized I was avoiding this one scene. I mean, I'd known for over a year I'd write this scene, but emotionally it was exhausting.

I get the impression your books may be a bit more humourous, Jon. Do you think that maybe subgenre affects how people deal with it as well? I'm thinking that in real noir, people probably almost expect it...
I still can't believe they willingly named a character Sara Sidle. I can't hear that without thinking 'suicidal'.

And I guess if she leaves town she's not marrying Grissom.

Now, about your story, I think it sucks to be a protagonist's best friend, or relation, or close associate. They always seem to bite it, but it is often necessary in order for the protagonist to be invested in the case, particularly for amateur sleuth stories, I guess.
I read a rumor one time that John D. MacDonald wrote a Travis Mcgee book where Meyer is the narrator and Travis gets killed. Supposedly, he used the book as a negotiating tool to get a better deal from his publisher.

So there's an avenue you might want to explore, if your series becomes popular. Negotiate a better contract by threatening to blow all the characters to smithereens. :)
Don't you think that Travis McGee manuscript would be worth a lot of money now?

Perhaps we should file your post under contract negotiation tips...
I have a lot of admiration for people who can think this far ahead. I have no idea what will happen ten pages from now, let alone another whole book from now.

I really like the kind of loose series that seems to be gaining popularity these days with characters showing up in different books, but not always as main characters. I think Duane called it his Swierczer-verse. There's a whole thread on the Elmore Leonard forum called "Touchstones" where people have linked up all the characters he's used over and over -- the grandchildren of some of the characters in his westerns are now in their own stories.

Rebus doesn't seem like a guy who'd be very happy in retirement -- the whole series seems to be about his struggle between needing to be around other people and not liking other people very much. Maybe the universality of that goes a long way to its success. Still, killing the guy off seems a little harsh.
Well John, if you're going to see Ian tonight, maybe you can ask him the now famous question - is he really not going to bring Rebus back? I think that's the one down side to not killing him off. People will continue to beg for more. What if the author really just wants to move on, and after twenty years, doesn't want to write that character? Killing them off does give a sense of finality to the issue.

Of course, you might also be accosted by crying women in Toronto bars...
I'm not all that involved with Rebus and think readers need to get a grip on reality. However, I was disturbed by the death of Morse, though not to the point of tears.
I will not kill my protagonist. That ends the series. But I do kill people close to him. His is a dangerous profession where he frequently risks more than his own skin. I have actually had a request to kill his wife, the rationale being that married sleuths lose much of their appeal because romantic tensions are unlikely. Of course, that isn't quite true, so she lives on, at least for the time being. :)
I'm not all that involved with Rebus and think readers need to get a grip on reality.

Ha!

But what about when the rumours were flying that Harry Potter would die in the last book? It did seem to generate a lot of discussion.

I'd probably lean like you, not kill a protagonist, but then again, if after twenty years I was ending a series, I just might. I guess you never know....
Wasn't too troubled about Harry either. That sort of thing cannot go on forever. In fact, I thought the first book the best. Quite different with Morse. He wasn't done yet, as far as I'm concerned.
Well this was a timely discussion. I just listened to Elizabeth George speak at the Writer's Festival in Vancouver today (she was great, I am a huge fan). In her book before last, she killed off the pregnant wife of her main character Linley. I have read most of the books and had found this very hard to swallow as a reader. I found it difficult to believe that anyone could ever recover from such a tragedy and I felt that there was absolutely no chance of him ever being happy. That's the reader in me talking. Now her explanation today made total sense from a writer's perspective. She received unbelievable anger from her readers over this (she was very surprised by the severity) but this is something she had been planning to do for many years. She explained that to have a set of characters that grew and changed (as opposed to a static unchanging one like a Miss Marple or Poirot) you had to do continue to "throw them into a pit and watch them crawl out." This is not news to most writers, but what was really interesting was that the only way she could really put the reader into the characters shoes, and to make the reader feel like he feels was to create this total despair. In other words she knew she had hit the nail on the head when her first cold readers felt so awful about it they couldn't read on for a few days. She knew she had put them completely in the characters shoes. So as a writer she could not have affected her reader more than to do this. But boy did she make a lot of her readers mad, I know a couple that refuse to read her anymore. I admire her fearless approach to writing. She still obviously writes because she loves it and wants to change and improve all the time, not just to continue to cash in on her readers loyalty.
Thanks for sharing that - I agree, as a writer I can admire that perspective. Since I haven't read her books, I've only seen the anger from readers...

Love that phrasing, though. "Throw them into a pit and watch them crawl out."
Killing off the protagonist is tough, especially if you're writing first-person stories. Killing off only peripheral characters runs the rsik of letting a series contract "Star Trek Disease." (Definition: Whenever any crew regulars go down to a new planet, any new character who goes to the planet with them is a dead man. Or taken over by a mutant intelligence form. Or some other hideous thing.)

I'm inthe early stages of working on a series, and I'm contemplating killing off a regular character, close to the protagonist. I think it will help with the suspense in the long run, as the reader will be thinking less about "how are they all going to get out of this?" and more "who's going to get out of this?"

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