"Anyone Can Die" -Is that really true? Or can a character's death spell doom for the success of my book

by John
(Woods Cross, UT)

So there are a lot of books, films, and tv shows that have the logic that "Anyone Can Die - At any moment" But at what point does that not work for a story? Can a character's death have such an impact on the story, and the audience, that the audience dislikes the story, and discontinues reading it?

SO here is the details of what I am writing: The story starts at point A: The kingdom is under attack, and the king is dead, and his long-lost son, (who doesn't want to be king) gets wrapped up in the whole thing when he meets another character. The other character tries to motivate the prince to become king and save his people. Gradually, the prince develops some kingly qualities, and rallies together the last of his people to fight the antagonist, and get the castle back. But during this final battle - the prince dies...

I realized that his death could be quite a shocker, because he was one of the key characters that had a big role in the future of the story (he was to become the great king who rebuilt the kingdom) and his abrupt death would send all of those plans crashing to the ground, which will lead up to point B, and the end of the story: The kingdoms are definitely eradicated, and now the remaining people have to start anew, surviving off the land, without royalty, or factions...

This is the point B that will lead up to the next chapter in the story, because the good guys didn't "win" and the kingdoms are still destroyed, they must shift their way of life from now on, and because the bad guys didn't "win" then there isn't much left of the story to tell. This leaves the book at a not so fulfilling ending, which, I assumed will get the readers even more thirsty for the next book. And that is what I want...

BUT, my question is: will this sudden shift of story throw some reader off so much that they ultimately quit reading? Or is this death the perfect thing to keep them at their toes, waiting to see what will happen next. Because, if the prince lived, and they defeated the evil, it would make for a pretty generic, (if not corny) ending: The young prince is victorious, he decides to be king, he is crowned, and he rules the kingdom, they live happily ever after, bla bla bla...

Anyway, I just need to know your opinion on the matter before I decide for sure if this will work out.

Answer: Any character can die, if it's for the right reasons. If the death contributes to the dramatic arc of the story, or the thematic message, it works. Otherwise, the effect can be emotionally dissatisfying.

For instance, Romeo's death in Romeo & Juliet works because it results from his own mistake. He kills Tybalt, in revenge for Mercutio's death, which in turn results from Romeo's decision to marry Juliet in secret. Moreover, his death helps bring about the healing of the rift between the two families.

Every good main character goes through an arc where he is pressured to change and must make a fatal decision (fatal because it determines his fate). That decision also determines whether the story goal is achieved.

It sounds as though you are wanting to write a comi-tragedy, in which the goal is to eliminate rule by the aristocracy and create a more democratic or egalitarian future for both kingdoms. The goal will be successfully reached (both monarchies will be dethroned) but the main character will not be alive to see it (that's the tragedy part).

If this is correct, then you know that the main character's choice at the crisis will result in the downfall of both kingdoms, but be the wrong choice for the main character personally. It is up to you do decide if you are writing about a selfish person who makes a stupid mistake or a selfless person who gives his life for a higher ideal. How you write it will determine the thematic message of the story--whether the aristocracies fall because of their own defects, or whether individual sacrifice makes a better world.

It also means that you have to show the kingdoms being corrupt or unfair in the beginning, how the status quo is being challenged in act two, the crisis (where the kingdoms will either stand or fall) in act three, and the outcome in act four--the dawn of a new and better world.

(If I'm wrong and the goal is simply to win the battle, then I would agree that what you have here may be emotionally unsatisfying, because the prince's death would have no meaning. To be emotionally satisfying, the death must be meaningful.)

Of course, this is not the only reason why it may make sense for a character to die, but it seems to be the reason in your story.

(Incidentally, if I'm wrong about your intention for this story, the solution is to get clear what your intention is and create the right arc for how it will all unfold in an emotionally fulfilling way.)

Best of luck.

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