May I Or Mustn’t I?

     On this third day of November in this Year of Our Lord 2022, I refuse to talk about the upcoming elections. I refuse to talk about the attempts to pre-anesthetize us about the massive, nationwide act of vote fraud we must anticipate. And I flatly refuse to talk about the whining for “pandemic amnesty.” Plenty of others can and will shoot at the fish in those barrels…though why anyone should find that pastime attractive, I can’t understand, especially given the current price of ammo. Anyway, today I just can’t.

     You see, I’m facing a crisis. It’s the sort of crisis only a novelist will ever face, and be grateful for that, Gentle Reader. Because it’s a conscience-trying, fear-stoking, what-will-posterity-think-of-me-if-I-do-this mess. The sort of thing that can make a writer glad that he languishes in obscurity.

     I’m contemplating killing a Main Character. A protagonist.

     I’ve already done it once. It brought a veritable monsoon of denunciations upon my unexpecting head. (One particularly fierce set came from a sweet young woman in India who’d previously offered to marry me. Sight unseen, too. No, she didn’t retract the offer. Think what you like.) You’d think I’d have learned from that not to do it again. Perhaps the quarter century since that first auctorial indulgence has weakened my inhibitions. Hopefully that won’t prove fatal…to me.


     Among my problems, I have too many Main Characters roaming the Onteora landscape. And in the sweet rushing fullness of time, every one of them has demanded to appear in subsequent stories, at least as important members of the Supporting Cast. My Supporting Cast characters are unanimous in their protests. They want to be Main Characters, and any attention shunted off to existing Main Characters deprives them of their due, or so they say.

     I get no peace.

     This is the power of Main Character Immunity (MCI). Protagonists are so routinely exempted from death that they’ve come to expect it. So have fiction readers worldwide. To kill an attractive protagonist, no matter how imperative the plot makes it, is to shatter readers’ expectations with a violence that few fictional events can equal. I could probably insert a passage from the Marquis de Sade into the middle of an Onteora County Romance with fewer repercussions.

     Consider this: The whole of the trailblazing TV series 24 was founded on MCI. Had that convention been tossed aside, what would have become of the series? Great God in heaven, it was bad enough when Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer found new love with Annie Wersching’s Renee Walker, only to have her snatched away by a sniper’s bullet. Imagine if Bauer himself had caught that bit of lead!

     But in the novel I’m currently constructing, the plot demands a blood sacrifice. It refuses to march forward without one, and if you think negotiating with a surly, petulant protagonist is tough, try slugging it out with a plot that’s gone on strike! Worst of all, the character that goes down has to be one of the Good Guys. So I’m torn.


     Yeah, I know: It should be my worst problem. But it’s a humdinger. I got such a backblast over killing a Supporting Cast character in a recent book – a book (and a series) that’s proved to have wider and deeper influence than I originally expected, and I have no idea whether to be happy about that – that I was temporarily seized by the urge to change my name, move, and leave no forwarding address. (It was the difficulty of finding a new name that’s even easier to misspell than Porretto that stopped me.)

     So this frosty autumn morning finds me conflicted. The novel is stuck. Without an unexpected event of genuinely stunning impact, it will proceed no further. And nothing integral to the tale that’s of less import than the death of a protagonist will do the job. But the specter of MCI looms large over me; I don’t know if I have the heft to defy it. I’m not Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, or John Steinbeck. Come to think of it, did any of them ever kill a protagonist in the middle of a book? I can’t remember!

     It surely does look like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking.


Skip to comment form

    • Drew Ramos on November 3, 2022 at 8:53 AM

    I’ve thought about how much I miss Louis Redmond than my own father since their deaths. That’s directly attributable to the number of good examples Louis contributed to my life and the lack from my father.

    I’d advise to kill the character off. I say this because it demonstrates the power of your stories and characters but also out of a selfishness. Your writers block has to end and if the cost is the loss of a character who dies fulfilling their purpose so be it.


    • Steve Sumner on November 3, 2022 at 9:31 AM

    Look on the bright side…. at least you aren’t having to kill off the main villain in the middle of a story.

    • Daniel K Day on November 3, 2022 at 11:05 AM

    Summon your inner George R. R. Martin. What must be, must be.

    • Tracy Coyle on November 3, 2022 at 11:51 AM

    No one gets out of here alive.

    Everyone has to die of something.

    A worthy death is better than a worthless life.

    I love being a writer, it’s the writing that I hate.

  1. Many years ago I was reading a scene in which the viewpoint character was walking along the top of a castle wall under cannon fire.

    I was just old enough to think, “I’m not going to worry too much, because the viewpoint character never dies.” (And I was too young to have encountered many books featuring multiple points of view. So, maybe around 8?)

    That scene ended in midsentence, and the next chapter began in somebody else’s point of view; the first character no longer having a head.

    Kill at will!

  2. Don’t kill them – sideline them. Find a reason to remove them from the action (grave illness/injury/crisis elsewhere/personal reasons).

    You can always bring them back, and kill them, if you think it necessary later.

    Consider establishing a temporary cliffhanger for some part of the story. Leave them in grave danger, and milk the suspense for all it’s worth.

  3. (chuckle) Well, Margaret, I do strive to remain aware that as the author of my tripe, I have the “right” to be somewhat authoritarian — even dictatorial. But the earlier experiences of which I spoke have left me a bit…timid about knocking off a beloved character. Now, in the case under consideration, the character I’m thinking of killing is brand new to my oeuvre, and therefore won’t have the time to get too beloved. So maybe I can get away with it. But it remains to be seen if I can work up the courage.

    • Abbe Faria on November 3, 2022 at 11:19 PM

    I don’t get upset by what fiction authors do – hey, it’s fiction – but I was mightily surprised when I saw you were killing off Louis. Such a great character with so many possibilities. I expected we might see him acting from within the Realm. But apparently it wasn’t to be.

    1. You know, of all my characters, Louis was the only one who was literally “born to die.” I created him to exemplify goodness and strength — to serve as a model, tutor, and lover for Christine. But a character like that can’t be allowed to live. He’s too close to perfect. And there’s only one thing a writer can do with a paragon like that. Fortunately, his life and death provided Christine with what she needed, including the propulsion that kept her going through the rest of her adventures. Unfortunately, a great many of my readers fell in love with him…and so arose the firestorm I suffered when I snuffed him out.

      1. The only one? Armand, it surely seems, was born to die. Or is he still alive in a sense? Just not in his body. So then Teresa was born to die because of her genetic tie to his body.

        1. (chuckle) Picky, picky! What I had in mind with that phrase is that I had already conceived of Louis’s passing as I created him. In the wider sense, we’re all “born to die.” Indeed, C. S. Lewis has observed that how we die is at least as important as how we live…possibly even more so. It’s worth pondering, especially for us older sorts.

          1. OMG! It just hit me, 24 hours late. As Hope is still alive, so is Armand.

        • SteveF on November 4, 2022 at 7:05 AM

        And there’s only one thing a writer can do with a paragon like that.

        -wise nod- You rename him SteveF. Art imitates life.

        As for the major question, I’d say to be true to your art. Not quite “and to hell with what the audience thinks” but edging in that direction.

    • Michael Sinsabaugh on November 5, 2022 at 8:18 AM

    Do what the art demands.  Killing off Louis was no mistake.  As you mentioned he was too perfect, he would have become boring.  Instead, by killing him off (and the way in which he left) you demonstrated the kindness and compassion that we should strive for in everything.

    The others (Steve Sumner for example) would not have had their own life were he still around.  His story would have been marred by the ever present thought in the mind of the reader, “when is Louis going to show up”.  Surely Christine’s story line could never have happened if Louis were still in the picture.

    Trust your judgement, it is sound

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