Sunday, 18 September 2011

Article | Valar Morghulis, Or, Why Protagonists Should (and Shouldn't) Die

We've all seen author's darlings. Characters you know the author would never allow to die, no matter how ridiculous the odds. To me, the first question that should be posed is: is this necessarily bad? The answer is, of course (as with any 'necessarily' question), is no.

...For the most part, though, it's 'yes'. So why?

Take Eddings as our case study. Or rather, Eddings vs. Martin (which yes, sounds like some kind of SFF wrestling match). With Eddings, we know that nobody will die - or at least, none of the main protagonists. And why? Because they never have, and that's why, when one does, we don't believe it (and we're right, he's resurrected right afterwards. Talk about a cheat).

Now take a look at Martin. His protagonists are dropping like flies from book one. In fact, in SFF, we don't even use 'dropping like flies' any more - it's 'dropping like Starks'. And when his characters die now, we do believe it - in fact, we're worrying about which of our favourites will die next, and it takes the tension up in a way that Eddings never could.

But maybe I'm specifying 'death' as the only medium of punishment for those pesky protagonists too much now - so it's time to talk about pain. Body found floating by the docks... Okay, maybe not Abercrombie-pain, which is a little too grotesquely detailed for me, but you know what I mean. Protagonists don't need to die to suffer, and it's these trials and tribulations, the fact that protagonists can't always succeed and are in fact frequently doomed to failure that makes them interesting. It's one of the reasons I argue that Kvothe isn't a Mary Sue - because although we know he lives, we also know he lives transformed. And we know he failed, and became a much darker character for it. So I don't mean that your protagtonist necessarily has to die in book one to make me believe it, or be tense about it, when someone else dies in book six. But somebody does need to get hurt.

There are other reasons for not keeping your characters close: for one, drama. Sacrifice is important, and if characters can never suffer for what they do, it tells us that it isn't important. That they aren't making hard decisions, and that frequently they're just angsting about nothing (uh, take that, Eragon). Yes, Erikson's characters do frequently come back, but do they suffer? Do they make hard decisions? That';s a yes, by the way.

And now to get back to our overall answer: a no. You don't have to kill your protagonists, or even make them suffer that much - if you're writing early YA, or comic fantasy. But should you try to give them some consequences? Yes.

...Or at least, so goes my very subjective train of thought. What do you think? Comment and tell me below!


  1. I could swear by your post!

    I think you've hit the key point with the word "consequences". I want, I need to see all characters suffering (or benefiting) from the consequences of their actions. And when it's time to determine what those consequences are, I want solid inner logic - if the whole venture was farfetched and crazy, I'd expect it to go awry. If there's a Great Villain to defeat, and one farmboy to do it alone (since we're mentioning Eragon) I'd expect the kid to lose because, honestly, that's what would happen if the world was real, if the events were real.

    I realize this makes for lots of dark fantasy, because when heroes don't always win the grey shadows are always looming ahead, but it also makes for books that keep me sitting on edge, turning pages to see what happens next, and hoping against all hope that the farmer will, in fact, win.

    Or that the villain will crush all oposition, which might be the case, but I disgress :)

    The thing is, no matter what happens, a book of these characteristics will have us more heavily invested. Will be memorable. Will be a good book.

    Great post, Jacob!

    Ron @ Stories of my life

  2. Great post! I think you are right -- it is the consequences that affect the story the most, not necessarily death. If it changes and/or affects the character deeply, it can be just as effective as a death that changes the story. As much as I hate it when a main character I like dies, I think it would be awesome if more authors try out that route. Not that I really know what's The Trend in SFF since I consider myself kind of new to the SFF genre ...

    As a random story, I remember being reaaallyyy shocked when Ned died in GoT D: It was the first time I ever read a book where a main character died ... FOR REAL! And since he was decapitated with many witnesses, I knew the chances of him being magically resurrected in the story were slim to none.

    Oh and second random story, I was all excited when I recognized the name Kvothe! Haha! I never read that book yet but it is DEFINITELY on my to-buy list next time I go to the bookstore! Haven't heard a single bad thing about the book! :)

  3. @Ron: Haha, thank you.

    I always feel the same way - as you can probably guess by the post! You can't have a story that readers take seriously without consequences - and if the reason why the heroes win is 'the plot says so'... Well, let's just say I won't be reading the inevitable sequel! :P I find it really ups the odds as well - when characters make genuinely hard choices, or sacrifices, it's a much better story - and gains much better reader empathy - than farmboy who gains 'Teh Awesomesome Powers' and summons a firestorm to burn the villainous army. :P

    @Jinny: Thank you! Yeah, that's what I was trying to get as, because if there aren't any stakes, or the characters always succeed, then where's the drama? I don't know many protagonists who die, but it always hits you hard - I'd barely read any before when I read Ned's death (like you!), and I spent like, the next 20 pages trying to work out when Martin would bring him back... And it never happened, of course. Now, that really got the point across. :D

    Really? Well, I'd definitely recommend it - for sheer quality of prose, Rothfuss is one of the best authors I know. Kvothe's still a bit too... 'generally fantastic' for him to be my favourite character, though. It's got a few cliche's, but it's a really good story. Just read the first page and knew I had to read it :D (Quick reading judgement my speciality )