Killing off a main character

adriccoverjpgPhil: Being a bit of a Dr Who nerd, I was pleased to see buried away on one of the less fashionable TV channels, an abridged episode called “Earthshock” recently.

This is notable for a rare and major plot twist – the violent death of one of the main characters. Who aficionados will remember that the character concerned is Adric, best remembered as a whiny pain in the backside nobody liked.

Despite his unpopularity, it’s a big step to kill off a character in this way (slamming him into the Earth to kill off the dinosaurs since you ask). Up to that point, the Doctors assistants tended to leave with a bit of blubbing but generally quite happily.

Killing off one of your main characters is a tough thing for any writer to do. Whilst it will give your reader a useful shock, you might well alienate them by removing their favourite character from the story.

You’ll also make them wonder exactly who is safe. This can both put them on edge wondering what happens next, or make them lose interest in the plot since it’s obvious that the writer doesn’t care much about them. All stories call on the reader to identify and care about the characters. Those that fail to do this won’t engage the reader or viewer.

Beyond not engaging the audience, there are other pitfalls. While the BBC happily killed off most of the main characters in the spy series “Spooks” over its run, When Hamish MacBeth’s dog was run over, it had to be replaced by the end of the episode. Humans can meet the reaper all you want but cute animals? Oh no – not on Sunday evening telly!

Mind you, there are ingenious ways to make the best of it. Returning to the sci-fi world, Star Trek killed of Mr Spock at the end of the second film, a major shock for the audience. Fortunately this allowed a third film where they got him back again – a result for the filmakers and accountants. Better still, in the JJ Abrams re-boot of the series, he reverses some roles and kills off Captain Kirk for a few minutes to the pleasure of fans, film studio and the accountants all over again!

Strangely, we’ve never thought about killing off one of our major characters. I did want to skewer a middle-ranking one once but Candice told me I wasn’t allowed, so for the moment they are all safe…

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