I Need A Hero: Can You Kill Too Many Good Guys?

I’m reading (or rather listening to) a best-selling fantasy series. Each book is thick and extensive. The world-building is impressive, the multiple plots intertwine seamlessly, and the characters are deep and plentiful. 

imgresThis series has made my oft-challenging commute almost enjoyable and several times I have sat in the car outside my house waiting for a chapter to end. I dream about these characters and imagine myself alongside them.

 I am about two-thirds through the third book and happy to know that there are at least two more waiting in the wings. If I intersperse each book with something different, I can easily keep my commute comfortable until well into the summer.

But, and here is the reason I have not revealed the author or series, twice this week, as I was merrily driving home from work, a number of the good guys were put to the sword (or otherwise dispatched). Now, this is not the first time that our well-respected author has killed off heroes/heroines. He does it with drama, dignity and a huge amount of skill. He has left me in tears or sitting stunned at my driving wheel (hopefully while stationary) on a number of occasions.

But suddenly, I feel adrift. Each time one of my heroes dies, another emerges to take his (or her) place. These characters are usually in the background and, figuratively speaking, step up to the plate. And once more, our intrepid commuter is as happy as those drivers who gloat as they pass all the stationary cars while in the carpool lane.

imgres-4One of the fascinating aspects of this author’s craft is that most of his characters are not totally good or totally bad. It is challenging but possible to remain interested, even invested in some of the more fiendish without rooting for them. And there are plenty of characters with the potential to be heroes who fail or turn to the dark side (not a hint to the series).

But, suddenly, I am bereft of a hero: one who is fueled by noble principles, by a cause, and who is…well, heroic.

I find myself questioning my considerable investment in the series, the immense time I am spending on it, and even walk to my car with a certain level of tension and resignation. I am no longer sure with whom to stand when I dream and fantasize about the outcome. 


And so I must pose the question: Can you kill too many of the good guys and still engage all your audience? What say you, sir/milady?


Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.  


12 comments on “I Need A Hero: Can You Kill Too Many Good Guys?

  1. Jordan says:

    I do agree that there is a balance somewhere between being too “happily ever after” and killing everyone off like it’s a slasher movie. Killing just enough characters provides an emotional connection for fear of losing the characters readers love. However, killing a large number of characters can deaden the readers’ emotions for the same reason. Stephen King seems to be one of the most adept authors at killing off mass quantities of characters while still bringing readers back.

    Being an engineer, I like to mathematically model everything I possibly can. This leads me to believe that horror and fantasy and even fairy tales are effectively the same genre, with the one difference being the number of “heroes” slain throughout the story. I think the optimal number of main characters to kill off is somewhere between 10 and 40 percent for fantasy. Any less would be a fairy tale and any more would be a horror story.

    • Elf Writer says:

      I’m not an engineer or scientist, but i also wondered if there was a ‘formula’ to this. I feel obliged to kill off at least one main character each book to avoid the “happily ever after” imbalance.

      Interested in what others think of that?

      Thanks for responding, Jordan.

  2. I have cried at the deaths of characters, but more often than not, those characters are ones that I have grown to love over the course of a novel or series. The catharsis allows one to move on and re-engage with the novel or series, sometimes more deeply. I haven’t gotten that far into SoFaI, which I suspect is the series you’re listening to, but I understand that the author is fond of killing off some of the most loved characters in the series. I haven’t reached the point where I feel betrayed yet. 😉
    Another take is a very popular SF series in which a main character, or two, dies each chapter for the first several before you understand who your true protagonist is. I found I didn’t mind that so much, because I wasn’t invested in the characters at that point, and the author stopped before it became irritating. I was, in fact, taken in by his daring choices.
    As ever, I think it’s a balancing act. Over a long series, I can understand the need to “shake things up.” It always reminds be of Umberto Eco and his theory of serial fiction. He stated that mystery and other series in which the protagonist remains the same and survives novel after novel is one of the qualities that the reading public wants. They want to know that the good guy triumphs and to have that expectation fulfilled. He even talked about Superman and how he couldn’t die. This was, of course, before DC killed Superman off and ressurected him in a strange and convoluted storyline 🙂
    There’s something to that, but I think that the reading public is more sophisticated that Eco, or many industry experts, give them credit for.
    At least I hope they are, because that’s the readership I aim for 😉

  3. wiseowl1959 says:

    Intriguing, intriguing …. Now, if you pretty please could tell me the name of this “bestselling fantasy series ” or at least the name of the author ….. LOL 😉

  4. Tammy says:

    It devastates me when my heroes are killed; however, in doing so, the Author allows for me to champion another whilst still remembering the greatness of the one before.

  5. Suz says:

    I have a pretty good idea which series you mean, and I stopped reading after the first book for exactly this reason! I’ve kept abreast of the rest of the series and definitely have a love/hate relationship – on the one hand, it’s SO WELL DONE; on the other, I really don’t want to live in a world where any character you get attached to might die. Way too stressful.

    I would say that the Hunger Games trilogy also falls into this category. A bit of character death (especially of well-liked characters whose deaths have real consequences) ups the stakes, too much and bleeding heart readers like me will disengage to protect themselves.

    But then, many, many people love both series, so I think it comes down to courage as an author. Ultimately readers will recognise and reward courage, which includes killing characters when the plot requires them to die. Even if that means HALF YOUR CAST. 🙂

  6. […] Your characters are too dead. I actually wrote a blog post about this (I Need A Hero), keeping the book and you anonymous so as not to spoil it. Guess what? […]

  7. If you kill too many characters off – especially the lead characters in the novel -it disengages the readers from the story. Some readers disengage for “self-preservation” because they read to escape reality, not be thrown into a hyper-realistic world. Other because the slain character has come to define the book. (Think of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant without TC in it.) And there are also those who just get annoyed and view the killing as “shock effect” writing. (Yeah, the last is me.)

    Martin – cause we all know that is probably who you are talking about – has become the one of the “slasher” writers of fantasy. When he can’t think of how to fill in another 600 pages, he kills off another lead character for “shock” effect. The reader gets a big “OMG I can’t believe he died” moment then boo hoos a little, and then Martin gets to start all over. He puts the next person front and center, goes through the “romance” period of building them up in the eyes of his readers then killing them off again. Rinse and repeat. Boom! Instant page filler material. Also lazy writing.

    I mean, would Tolkien’s LoTR trilogy have been more dramatic if he killed off the Fellowship members one by one? I can see it now, Frodo dies but Sam takes up the ring. Sam is corrupted by the ring however, and Merry decides he must take it. During an epic – and ultra-realistic fight – Sam is killed but Merry is mortally wounded. This leaves Pippin with the task of completing the quest to Mt. Doom alone. Tolkien could have also done the same with Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, who could be killed off at separate times to “heighten the dramatic tension and realism” as they struggle to reach Minas Tirith. JRR could have gotten at least two more books out of that, but, it wouldn’t have made LoTR better – just longer and therefore more lucrative.

    So, yes, you can kill off too many people in a fantasy novel. Martin has reached that point in my opinion, though I agree his writing is wonderful, his characters – while they remain alive – are amazingly multi-faceted, and the world is richly textured.

    If you you want to see the ultimate example of killing off too many people, go read the Prince of Thorn book. That book reads like a “slasher” movie, because every few pages some one is raped, tortured, burned alive, or massacred. Jorg Ancrath, the main character, is nothing but Hannibal Lector with a sword. The main difference between Martin’s books and Lawrence’s Thorns is that Lawrence never pretends the deaths in his book are anything but “shock” effects. He has embraced the “slasher” book style and run with it. Martin still pretends that all his killing of characters is for realism factor and dramatic effect. Wonder whose lying to themselves?

  8. […] Your characters are too dead. I actually wrote a blog post about this (I Need A Hero), keeping the book and you anonymous so as not to spoil it. Guess what? […]

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