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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There is absolutely no reason why you could not remove and add characters in the cast. People die or move away in real life. And there are so many fascinating new characters to introduce.
I agree IJ, and when I heard Elizabeth George speaking, it seemed clear to me that she felt that she had a strong core of 5 main characters so removing one would still leave lots of characters to explore (or the chance to add a new core character). She also wanted to explore what the aftermath of such a death would do to Linley. She read from her new book due out in May and she is back into the series (rather than the backstory that "What Came.." dealt with) and she will deal with Linley's reaction. She also said something interesting about Havers - (you mentioned you like Havers) that she is always surprised when people wonder when Havers will be happy because she has never felt that she was unhappy. She thinks she has lots of spunk and goes through life pretty satisfied. Which points out that many readers of series are quite often looking for the happy ending, and this is why the death of Linley's wife was met with such anger. I think readers felt that the happy ending for Linley was pulled away irrevocably.
Thanks, Tina. Interesting about George and Havers. I can't remember the novel, but at one point Havers, who clearly had a crush on Linley, ran afoul of him and took the brunt of his displeasure. That situation was brilliantly handled. I have no squabble with Havers remaining tantalizingly deprived of the fairy tale solutions. There was another very neat situation with the Indian neighbor. All this, I think, was very well handled both for character and realism. Real life is no picnic, and how characters handle disppointment and loss is more interesting than romantic love stories.
You ask if it's ever OK to kill a series character or if said killing can likewise kill a writer's career. I don't think those are the right questions. If killing or not killing any character -- not just a series character -- is predicated on how the death will impact the sales of a book, then it's the wrong response. Is it right for the book? The situation? The series? Is it the correct answer to any number of internal -- writerly -- questions?

But if it's for the *wrong* reasons it will on some level be gratuitous and your readers will feel it and that false note will resonate through the work.
I completely understand what you're saying. I also think the example of Sherlock Holmes is one that factors in, and a lot of people will reject an author for a perceived betrayal. Ultimately, the publisher might have something to say about that and argue strenuously against killing off a much-loved character. Readers on some discussion lists have spouted venom at Elizabeth George and Karin Slaughter, and I've seen a lot of people say they'll never read Slaughter again, and from what I understand it has to do with killing off a character and feeling betrayed.

I personally do lean to creative freedom to the author to follow their vision for the work, all of what you said. If Rebus had ended up six feet under with Siobhan standing over his grave feeling the baby move (especially if we don't know who the father is, if there was a perceived opportunity that they may or may not have acted on) it could be a delicious, fitting end to a series where there have been a lot of dark moments. I have no problem, even as a devouted fan, with whatever Ian does.

But I do realize that authors have to be careful. Probably the mistake some have made is in not forewarning, the way Rowling did as her series progressed. I don't know. I expect death as a part of a crime fiction series, but I also understand that people get attached to the characters.
"Ultimately, the publisher might have something to say about that and argue strenuously against killing off a much-loved character."

Yes, they might, but allowing the publisher to determine too actively how the books go is a step toward the road to James Patterson-ism. The next step is selecting focus groups to pick the endings.

"I personally do lean to creative freedom to the author to follow their vision for the work."

I would hope an author would do more than "lean" toward creative freedom. The only way to maintain a unique voice is to be true to the author's vision. It may create a few wobbles with publishers, but it's important to remember why the author writes in the first place. True, killing off the franchise protagonist is kind of drastic and might require some reconsideration, but the ultimate success of the book/series is in the author's hands. Let's face it, if the publishers forces or denies a change and the book tanks, it will still be the author who pays the price. The publisher will just move on.
Yes, yes: that's what I'm saying, as well. Well put, Dana.

Now, clearly, there are authors whose books are steered by what their publisher wants and what they feel will sell. And, just as clearly, there are authors whose work is less infliuenced by these factors. Whose work do you prefer?
I would hope an author would do more than "lean" toward creative freedom.

I say this as a reader, about what I read. But the thing is, if you read something and you don't feel it comes off right, it is a manipulation, then the author can go on and on about it being their "vision" for the work - they still have to sell the reader on it fitting.

Otherwise, I may dispute that they've been genuine in their pursuit of creative freedom. That's the delicate balancing act. If I feel someone is genuinely doing what they believe they need to, thumbs up. However, they may maintain it's what they need to do, and I might not believe it.

Just my 2 cents. It's like watching any show/movie reading any story/book - you either buy the characters and the choices and outcome... or you don't. And it you don't I guess you respect the author's creative freedom, but that doesn't mean you're embracing the work.
For a few years I worked in the movie business and saw greater and lesser degrees of collaboration -- with greater and lesser degrees of success. But everyone was quick to say the movie business is collaborative. Producers, director, writers, actors, DOPs - on any given set they have wildly different input.

Now, I have a tiny bit of experience in the publishing industry and I see the same degrees of collaboration, but very few people have ever referred to writing books as collaborative. Still, I think it is.

Of course, it's like that line from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, it's always a battle between art and commerce but lateley art's been getting its butt kicked.
Writing a book is *not* collaborative. (Except for, you know, when it is.) It's not like an album where you go through the liner notes and read all these names and know, with confidence, that the work in question would be entirely altered without all of these people writing music, contributing lyrics, playing lead guitar, castanets.

Writing a book is not like that. People -- agents, editors, lovers -- making suggestions here and there is one thing but that isn't collaboration. Most works of fiction are representative of one person spending hours and weeks and sometimes even years with their butt pressed into a chair.

John wrote, "it's always a battle between art and commerce but lately art's been getting its butt kicked."

I don't see why you'd say that, John. I don't see that in your work. I don't see it in mine. In fact, there are lots of places where I *don't* see it: lots of great books being written and published and told with clear voices and open hands and hearts. And the other kind of books? They exist. Sure they exist. I try not to read that kind. I suggest you don't either. And, fortunately, there are plenty of the former around to enjoy.
I don't know, I think you could have a whole other argument about this, from a number of different perspectives.

Ultimately, we all know publishers tend to buy what they believe will be commercially successful. So how does that balance against art? It's impossible to say. There may be plenty of great, unpublished manuscripts out there that are incredible works of art, but we may never see them because they aren't considered 'commercial'.

Which reminds me of one of the rejections I got a while back from a Canadian agent. Believe it or not - and I've got the letter around here somewhere to prove it - they had tons of great things to say about the story but the reason for rejecting it? "Too commercial." (Forgive my cynicism and many days of muttering "Only in Canada do we not want to sell books" after that.)

The funny thing is, that ms may very well never see print and yet from an artistic standpoint, when I finished that book I thought, "This is exactly what I want to do with my writing."

I've written some short stories I was really proud of, passed them around to my first reader and a few others for thoughts and been told "Take out all the swear words and send it to Ellery Queen."

I didn't. That's me being artistically pure, but not getting a potential major print publication credit. (I mean, since I put in the language I think is called for by the story, obviously I think it's warranted, so why would I remove it just to make a sale?) It isn't the best stories that get published in magazines. It's the best stories that fit within the limitations of the scope of the publication. Do they have the right to their guidelines? Yes. So, from a certain point of view, you could argue the entire publishing industry is like that, and I would argue that typically the authors who do get deals are the ones who fall within the scope of interest of the publisher. It may not necessarily be the best writers who get the deal, or the most artistically pure work. It may be the work that's most commercially viable that fits the publisher's interests. How do we ever really know?

The one thing I do know is that even signing with a Canadian agent, when I handed in What Burns Within he advised me to move it south of the border. And nobody who knows me will be surprised by my "Fuck that" response. Yet a lot of Canadian authors take the push and move work south. And if they do it because it's easier to sell the story, then they've sold out commercially on that point.

Every decision we make in the process of creating a work can be a choice between art and the ability to sell it. While there are definitely some books I think of as complete sell-outs, many books are probably a series of triumphs and compromises.
“Within he advised me to move it south of the border. And nobody who knows me will be surprised by my "Fuck that" response. Yet a lot of Canadian authors take the push and move work south. And if they do it because it's easier to sell the story, then they've sold out commercially on that point.”

I’m confused. I don’t see how it’s “selling out commercially” to write just the book you want to write, then seeking out the most receptive market for it. If I write a short story with coarse language and Ellery Queen doesn’t want it because of the language, I have two choices: I can tone down the language, or I can send it elsewhere. If I feel the language really needs to stay – a legitimate argument that I have used myself – then I don’t see how I am selling out to look for an outlet where that language will be more acceptable.

I’m a US writer, but my agent has agreed to look into possible UK publication as well. I don’t consider it selling out; I think of it as sound marketing: find the market that wants what I want to write.

(By the way, I empathize with your feelings about the “too commercial” rejection. I got one that said my ms was “too good for paperback, but not original enough for a hardcover series.” I wanted to write back and say my threshold for insult was high enough to tolerate a paperback.


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