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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If I were to get the impression that a character was killed off to shake up a stale series or to shock the reader or get a lot of buzz going, I think it would annoy me a great deal. Anything that seems intended primarily to manipulate a reader without it really fitting the story bugs me. This is why I often hate those "you'd never see this coming!" twist endings grate on me. No, I didn't see it coming because you pulled it out of your a.... hat. I only like them when "Holy cow!" is followed by "But of course, that makes sense."

A character I liked ends up dead in the book I have in the works with St. Martin's. When I realized that was going to happen, I hated the idea and was dreading writing it. But that's where the story had to go. Or at least, it was the only ending that made sense to me. (I wasn't sure of the ending until I was well into the book.)
Yeah, I basically agree with you. Although I think if you write a series where you never kill anyone off, it does lull people into complacency. It's like the movies where you always knew the hero wouldn't be killed off, or the tv shows. Once that started to change, it made things less predictable. I remember the actress from LA Law, can't remember her name (she was also on Star Trek TNG for a season) saying she literally found out when she got the script that she was going down the elevator shaft. Of course, nobody really liked her so nobody really cared...
I think the trick is not so much to kill a protagonist, but to not be afraid to kill a protagonist. It took me a long time to get to the point where I was okay with beating up my protagonists. Now, I give them heroin addictions, STDs, and sucking chest wounds.

I don't like them very much.
You know, if you're giving them STDs, perhaps you should get checked out...
I do like my protagonist very much, but I also beat up on him. Let's face it, Homer beat up on his heroes. I draw the line though at character assassination. :)
Joss Whedon is renowned for killing off well-loved, but not necessarily main characters (although some would argue with that). The only series of his that I watched all of was Firefly, and one of these characters was killed in the movie from the series, Serenity.

Seeing it in the cinema, it felt like a gut shot, but I loved it. I watched the rest of that movie with my mouth and eyes wide open, heart pumping. Why? Because if that character was killed, ANY of the others could be. I think it was a brave move and although Whedon copped flack for it, I think it really heightened the tension. The only problem with doing this regularly (like Star Trek) is that fans come to expect it and then it becomes a case of placing bets on who's next.

In terms of books, I know Arthur Conan Doyle was forced into resurrecting Holmes, but I lean towards series that don't go past about six novels. The idea of knowing a character for twenty years bores me tears. The one exception I can think of to this is Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, where he has a rotating crop of main characters to focus on.

So I guess my answer is, kill the character if it suits, both the story and the character.
I think the ACD story is the ultimate worrier for me, that public demand might be so intense you could do what you felt was right and be forced to reverse that decision because people wouldn't accept it. The end result surely couldn't be your most passionate work...
(Slaps forehead)

So that's what I've been doing wrong! I got it backward. I had a character I was going to kill off in the first book, and he became a series character. Figures.

Back to the drawing board...
Of course, if you did kill off your character and he turned into an undead investigator, I guess you could call that the best of both worlds...
As I begin writing book four of THE BLACK WIDOW AGENCY series, not a single person has been killed, but that's because the Black Widows are too busy solving other women's problems, eating chocolate and feigning off near-fatal hot flashes.

However, if I was writing a serious series that did involve murder and mayhem, I would personally be quite hesitant to kill off a series character unless I had a steady pool of other characters to draw from. Rowling could afford, literally and literarily, to do that and still have plenty of other well-defined characters. Those were seven-hundred page books. If a series does well and endures, minor characters can sometimes become critical in the long run when you're looking for a connection to back story.


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