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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Well, really it's not that hard to create another character. In fact, a little change may keep a series from going stale.
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?"

I agree.
I heard Rankin last night at Harbourfront in Toronto. He was being interviewed by Margaret Atwood there. One of the questions was about a long running series, killing off the main character and did you hit the point where you were just sick of them and were ready to kill them off. Rankin said he is not that tired of Rebus yet but is still ready to do a bit of a windup of the series. It was interesting to hear him talk about Rebus and how real the character is to him. Makes me wonder how any author can kill off any major character - it would be rather like murdering a friend.
I don't know... my spouse is pretty real to me and there are times I could consider throttling him!
Staying with Rankin, I think it's interesting the other character who keeps coming back book after book is Big Ger Cafferty. Is there any talk of killing him off?
Well, I have my signed copy of Exit Music. Don't you have yours?

I think it's a yin/yang relationship. If Cafferty was gone, Rebus could die happy. And that just doesn't fit with the tone of the series.
It doesn't fit with the tone of life. Unless, of course, Rebus were to be obsessed by this one thing.
Answering as a reader rather than as a writer, I can think of some well known examples: Dana Stabenow, Elizabeth George, and going way back, Nicholas Freeling did it without destroying their careers. I'm currently in the middle of George's What Came Before He Shot Her, which one reviewer calls a "masterful...548 pages of backstory." It's a depressing read but an impressive feat of confronting the death of a series character (the blurbs say "beloved," but not everybody was crazy about that particular character) in her most recent series book. As a writer--naah. Unlike many of you lovers of the dark, I go for the endearing characters and the happy ending. :)
Actually, it's interesting you bring up George, because discussion about that very book and also the latest Karin Slaughter were part of the contributing factors that prompted the post. I've followed the discussion about the books on 4MA (although I haven't read them myself) and have noted that most readers there do not share your opinion. Several have openly declared they won't ever read Slaughter again, and when one person asked about reading the book by George several people told them not to. I think it's something like a 25/75 split against the George book. Although people don't seem to be quite as... emotional over George's decision, the hostility over Karin Slaughter's book has been a bit of a wake-up call for me. People have really taken it personally.
Now there's a book I didn't care for. It went on and on rather drearily. I normally like George very well, primarily because of Havers. But actually I didn't care for the protagonist's wife in the earlier novels, so I was quite happy to have her die. Perhaps George realized this. :)
I wish Robert B. Parker would kill Spenser's damn annoying dog.
Wow. There goes the DL readership...


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