Guest Blogger · Miscellaneous

When the Protagonist Dies


Zoe Mortez, an avid reader, reviewed Take Me Tomorrow on her blog, “When I’m about to flip over to the next page, my mind kept saying things that really determined me to read more and more and more until the last page of this story. I’ll be rating 5/5 for this book and it’s highly recommended for those who love Young Adult Dystopian Genre novels!” You can read the entire review by clicking here or check out Take Me Tomorrow by clicking here. Thank you, Zoe!

When the Protagonist Dies Introduction:

Shannon, here, but only for a minute. Today is a guest post, and as many of you know, I pick out guest bloggers by your activity right here on This particular guest blogger commented on my post, Why Are Parents Dead in Fiction, and her comment struck me so much so that I just HAD to have her elaborate today. Cogpunk Steamscribe wrote about how death in fiction continues onto a whole new level during a protagonist’s death, and everything Lynne wrote can be found below. I hope you enjoy this discussion as much as I have!

When the Protagonist Dies … a response to ‘Why are Parents Dead in Fiction’ 

Spoiler & Trigger Alert! This is a post about books that have a main character who dies. As well, I’m avoiding John Green and his body of work in this discussion. I really don’t want to give away any spoilers. Most of the books in this discussion have been around for a while.

Shannon mentioned in her blog on that she wrote about absent parents or orphans because that was her experience growing up. Other writers want to throw their protagonists into situations where parents can’t interfere with the unfolding of the story. Disney really likes to take parents out of the situation so that the protagonist – or protagonists – is/are isolated, and this creates more drama and suspense and creates sympathy for the orphaned characters (think ‘Frozen’). When you want to ramp up an emotional response, kill off a parent or two.

But why stop there? Let’s take this one step further. Why not kill off the protagonist? Of course, there is a real risk when you kill off a protagonist that you will alienate the audience. But sometimes, in real life, people you love die. Why should literature ignore this?

The most famous examples of one of the protagonists dying in a Young Adult book is ‘The Bridge to Terabithia”, by Katherine Paterson. The author has openly admitted the book was inspired by the death of one the friends of her own child; she was writing from experience and from her heart. The book created a controversy when it first came out, as the topic of death was considered unsuitable for the target Young Adult audience. I don’t know why, when ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley is studied in schools, and the main protagonist dies in that book, so it isn’t like Katherine Paterson was reinventing the wheel.

Movie still provided by Cogpunk Steamscribe
Movie still provided by Cogpunk Steamscribe

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. The death of a protagonist or a main character has become a part of the tropes used in Young Adult Fiction.

The main character, Tris, dies in the final book in the Divergent series, ‘Allegiant’, by Veronica Roth. Both Bruno and Smuel die in the gas chambers in John Boyle’s ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’. In Morris Gleitzman’s ‘Then’, Felix has to watch his best friend Zelda die at the hands of the Nazis. As well, though the ending is ambiguous, ‘The Giver’ by Lois Lowry should be mentioned; I was certain Jonas and Gabriel were most certainly dying after finishing that book. All of these books are Young Adult, and none of them flinch away from the death of a main character or characters.

All of these books treated the deaths with honesty and respect. All of these books cover serious topics that are part of the human history, or analogies of the failings of human nature, and use death to highlight the points they are trying to make. The authors are trying to make people think. This is why all of these books have been banned at some point or another.

Not all books let death be the end of a character. Harry Potter, in ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’, dies as a major plot point, but then lives again. His death and rebirth made perfect sense as part of the plot, and wasn’t just used for dramatic effect. In ‘The Lovely Bones’ by Alice Sebold, the protagonist Susie narrates her own story even after her murder, as an entity from heaven. But these are more the exception than the rule, and aren’t the same kind of books as the others I have mentioned. As well, coming back from the dead is rather Hollywood’s set piece these days.

In the end, I don’t believe a writer should flinch away from the death of a protagonist or a main character, if that death is meaningful. Death is ugly, but like a shadow, it throws everything else into sharp relief. If you only ever paint with sunny and light colours, a painting is rather boring. If you only ever write about happy events, your writing will be bland. I’m not saying kill off your protagonist just for the hell of it, but don’t close yourself off to the possibility.

Bio: Lynne Lumsden Green has an addiction to learning that has seen her collect a B.A. in Creative Writing and a B.Sc. in Zoology. She runs Steampunk Sunday, Queensland Australia on Facebook, and writes the Cogpunk Steamscribe blog on WordPress. She has too many toys on her desk, but her excuse is they help ‘inspire’ her.

11 thoughts on “When the Protagonist Dies

  1. Maybe I’m remember ‘Frankenstein’ wrong, but I don’t recall the main character dying. Then again, I always though the protagonist was the Monster who I found infinitely more interesting than the Doctor.

    It’s funny how you mention that death of a protagonist is a trope. I write fantasy and get some of the oddest responses to my books. I put my characters through physical, mental, and emotional wringers, but I make sure death isn’t common. So I get ‘complaint’s about the low protagonist body count. One person even stated that all of my protagonists should have been killed and replaced by Book 4.. So at least in my genre, there seems to be a reader bloodlust and a desire for heroes to be killed left and right.

    Personally, I’m iffy on this because I feel once a character is dead, their story is pretty much over. You have to hope that the new heroes are accepted by the audience or you killed your series. I’m thinking of how in Dragonball Z, they killed Goku and planned on Gohan being the main character. Fans didn’t like it, so they kept bringing Goku back from the dead. It got a little ridiculous.

    I guess my point is that I think a protagonist’s death should have impact instead of being expected and run of the mill. Yet I get the feeling that people are demanding it more and no longer being affected by such events.

  2. Literature is life, and in life, folks die, and it can’t be helped. Also I am sticking up for my one little Nanowrimo novel, (spoiler alert) in which the protagonist dies. I didn’t plan it; it just happened, but it was the right thing. Just like life. Don’t worry about that spoiler; the book won’t be ready for a while! Thanks for a great post.

  3. I accidentally saw the movie of “The Bridge to Terabithia” (I know that sounds strange. I never watch TV, but I turned on the TV, it was just starting and I got caught up in it.) The thing that struck me is the death in the movie was handled much more realistically than in almost any adult movie I’ve seen. The loss, the grief, the guilt, the denial: it was all there. I’m assuming the realistic emotional content came directly from the book. If an author decides to let a protagonist die in a YA book it should be written with great sensitivity. Actually, the death of anyone.

  4. Great guest post. Having the protagonist die is very tricky if not set up well. In Harry Potter, I always knew Harry wouldn’t *really* die because there was no other POV. If Harry died, there was no way to tell the story. Hence all the setup Rowling went through.

    In addition to Sebold’s book, I’m thinking of the movie “Sixth Sense,” where the protagonist slowly realizes he is a ghost.

  5. Fantastic post – death in fiction is one of those things that at times has to be done and done well. I can’t remember who said it but there is a thought that if one of the main characters dies, then from that point on the possibility of any of the characters to die is much more real. It ups the stakes.

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