Kill ‘em, kill ‘em all!

By Joe Moore

phoenix-apostles-webFirst, a huge thank-you to everyone who responded to Amazon’s “daily deal” promo yesterday and downloaded the e-book version of my newest thriller THE PHOENIX APOSTLES. It quickly became the #1 bestselling Kindle book on Amazon. I hope everyone enjoys it. Let me know what you think.

And now back to our regularly scheduled blog . . .

OK, so most of the time we expect the bad guys to get their just rewards in the end. We imagecan all think of a million examples like the Wicked Witch melting to the cheers of the crowds. But what about killing everyone including the heroes? What about ending it  for all concerned and leaving no survivors?

Why would a writer eliminate all the main characters? Think it’s rare? Think Shakespeare. He was big on killing off the bcsk1 (Mobile)entire cast. Let’s look at the movies for a second. Think The Wild Bunch or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. How about The Godfather or Gladiator? Not too many walked away from those stories unscarred.

Writers, have you ever killed off the whole cast, good and bad? Do you hesitate killing off someone the reader cares about? After all, killing a character, especially one that the reader is attached to can add great emotion and momentum to the story. But killing a character without a very good reason could kick the reader right out of the story. It can cheapen the blow of the death if there is no reason for it, and leave the reader feeling dissatisfied. Obviously, there must be a good reason to do it. Is it something you avoid?

Readers, have you ever read a book where the good and bad guys bit the dust? Did you feel satisfied?

So which is it? Curtains for everyone, or leave a few standing?


25 thoughts on “Kill ‘em, kill ‘em all!

  1. Good morning, Joe. Hope you celebrated yesterday. Congratulations on your #1 ranking, my friend. Well deserved & kudos to you both. Amazing!

    To kick off this convo, I’m always hesitant to bump off a main character but I seriously have considered it, if for no other reason than to let readers know that I have & might again. It keeps them wondering & tense when you put your characters in danger.


    Carefully wording this–The talented Jan Burke, in her book FLIGHT, killed off a main character in a vital role RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE BOOK. A character I loved. She added an equally compelling one to carry on, but it was an amazing risk that paid off IMO & as you can see, it stuck in my memory.

    It’s a gutsy move that an author really needs to think about. In my two connected books-NO ONE LEFT TO TELL & NO ONE LIVES FOREVER-I considered killing off my woman assassin, Jasmine Lee. I absolutely loved writing her, but had good reason for considering this. My editor, who hadn’t wanted to buy a woman assassin story yet did, told me later she was glad I kept Jasmine breathing. Barnes & Noble did a feature interview with me because of Jasmine in their national newsletter. Romantic Times gave those books a TOP PICK rating & a Best Intrique of the year nom. I think my editor might have shot me if I had bumped her off.

  2. Thanks for the congrats, Jordan. It was an exciting day, that’s for sure. Lynn Sholes and I exchanged more phone calls in one day than we’ve done in months.

    When Lynn and I were finishing up our 4th Cotten Stone thriller (THE 731 LEGACY) we considered letting our heroine die as we closed out the series. But over the years we had received so many emails from fans asking when Cotten would finally be with her long-standing love interest that we finally gave her a reprieve. It would have been way too drastic a finale. Now as we finish up our new standalone, we are already mapping out a possible Cotten Stone 5. It would have been hard to do without raising her from the dead. And as my son, who is a firefighter paramedic often says, once someone is dead, they tend to stay dead.

  3. I don’t think I could pull off killing the MC in the middle of the book. 😯 I’m just not good enough to pull in two equally beloved characters to be MCs in succession.

    I do like good guys accumulating their own body count. I like seeing REALISTIC costs to beating the bad guys. Everyone knows good guys generally have a magical personal field protecting them from all things deadly, and taking that field away is still uncommon enough that it lends quite a bit of realism.

    My current WIP is a good vs. evil fantasy, and the good guys (and gals) get off easy. But my favorite manuscript I’ve written (currently tucked away awaiting editing) has several good guys getting killed off, as well as one particular bad guy who has that magical personal field.

  4. The original viewers of PSYCHO in the theaters thought Janet Leigh was the main character…then 25 minutes into the film she takes that fateful shower. It worked because the film was all about shock value.

    I don’t think I’d ever kill off the Lead character in a series (readers have too much invested), but in a stand alone maybe on one condition: that the Lead sacrifices him/herself for a greater good. Think, e.g., Braveheart.

    Ditto on the congrats, Joe. I wonder if yesterday you felt like Frank Costanza, who once triumphantly shouted, “I feel like Phoenix, rising from Arizona!”

  5. The ultimate price is too important of a concept to completely ignore, but there has to be a good reason for me to kill of a character. In a murder mystery, someone has to die, but the whole book is spent explaining why. Red shirts die, but they serve the purpose of showing just how much of a threat the villian is. Mentors die, but that is so the main character is forced to move forward on his own. Even pointless deaths can be used to reveal how a character handles life afterward.

    But what I won’t do is kill off a character if it doesn’t add to the story. If the point of killing a character is to show the bad guy is willing to kill, there’s no point in killing two red shirts. But if the killings are being used as a countdown until the main character’s time is up, that is a totally different situation.

  6. Kathrine, you’re right about it having to be realistic. But I think that “magical field” you refer to has to be venerable is some way in order for the MC to be realistic. Otherwise, we wind up with 2D characters with unrealistic advantages over the bad guys. Even in fantasy, the protag has to have some cracks in the armor. Thanks for dropping by TKZ.

    Jim, PSYCHO was the original that so many others tried to imitate. Hitchcock didn’t breath the same air we do. Another example of a MC giving his life for the cause is TERMINATOR 2. Thanks for the congrats.

    Timothy, you’ve just summarized the perfect reasons to kill or not kill a MC. Excellent advice and viewpoint.

  7. I’m not married to the happy ending. In one of my books, the protag is toast at the end and the bad guy left standing. Of course I will have to write it well to pull it off, but to me, that seems an accurate mirror of real life–sometimes it feels like the good guys lose and the bad guys just keep winning the victories.

    Can’t say as I’ve ever had a story where I killed them all–can’t even think of a story scenario in which I’d want to do that but there probably is one. Hmm….

    BK Jackson

  8. Kathrine,

    I’ll admit that I’ve put “magical fields” around some of my characters. But I also think that it has the nature of begging the question. The good guy and the bad guy who out last all others and take their stand in the final battle will always appear to be the strongest and to have been protected. If one of these characters had died, another character would have risen from the ranks and it would be that character who appears to have that protection.

  9. Good post, John. I’ve done both. The first person series I work on obviously has one safe character, but in my other series and in the standalone I released for Kindle a couple of months ago, no one is safe. I don’t feel the need to kill them all, but if anyone can go, the reader can’t get too comfortable even if no one they worry about actually does bite the dust. How the reader might feel about the character has nothing to do with it. The needs of the story must be met. When my wife asked why a favorite character had to die–even tried to talk me out of it a couple of times–my answer was always the same: he has Stringer Bell Disease.

  10. BK, what you describe sound a bit risky for my tastes. But you know your story better than anyone, and of course, anything goes as long as it works.

    Dana, your statement “How the reader might feel about the character has nothing to do with it.” is also a risky approach. I believe that the bedrock of any successful tale is the strength of the connection that’s formed between the reader and the characters. But like I mentioned to BK, there are no rules as long as what you do works. Good luck.

  11. Readers can really get a strong attachment to certain characters.

    Once I killed off a popular character a few chapters into the story, and immediately I had irate people emailing me. When they continued a few more chapters in the story though and discovered he faked his death to out a spy and reappeared just as much a happy killer as ever the same people wrote in expressing relief. That character continues to be one of my mains in three more books.

    I’ve wondered if its best to employ to the Star Trek Red Shirt Guy method, but that provides a too safe method, too predictable. All of my characters are expendable, but there will have to be extreme circumstances…and no more sequels planned forever. Hard choice to make.

  12. Basil, I don’t get too much real-time feedback–someone emailing me about the story as they read it. Nice. Also, that “no more sequels forever” option is a tough one. Just in case the pub needs one, it’s always good to know how to raise the dead. Refer to my son’s favorite line in my earlier comment.

  13. RE: Killing off the protag–I agree it’s risky. To me I think it’s whether or not the reader will subscribe to the idea that sometimes good things (or at the least change) come from a death.

    BK Jackson

  14. BK – I killed the mice in garage, my wife quit screaming. Death = Good Times.

    Contemplating ending part of a series, contemplating killing off one character whose been in 3 of my 4 (including my WIP). Those books are all set in the current age. I am intending to use him in my next novel, which takes place 900 years ago in the Mongol age. Perhaps it can be a case of reincarnation.

    Stephen Pressfield did that successfully in several of his books with a character named Telemon, who appears through his non-related books in various capacities. I suppose that would be a good way to do it. If your works are not a series, but can contain the same character in various ages of man.

  15. Well,
    Joe, I was always afraid that admitting that would cast me in the light of some shameful group of literary folks, but I haven’t read them either.
    When I found out she killed him off at the end of the series, I wanted to read them even less…

    I did watch the one movie with the dragons, but I’m partial to dragons.

    I understand Patterson killed off Alex Cross…
    What’s up with that?

    If a hero’s a hero isn’t it better to think of hero/ine as always out there somewhere to come to the rescue of the world again when that author sees fit?

  16. I read for the HEA, aka, the Happy Ever After ending. If a story doesn’t turn out that way, likely I wouldn’t read that author again. I read enough tragedies during my Shakespeare days in college. Now I prefer all things to end well.

    Ditto for my own series. I feel I owe it to my readers not to get too serious and certainly not to let any major characters die. People who read my mysteries have certain expectations and a lighter touch is one of them.

  17. Paula, JK did kill off Harry, but [spoiler alert] he had to die in order for Voldemort to be killed. Harry revives thanks to the resurrection stone and lives happily ever after married to Ginny Weasley.

    I did read a story in which the main character was killed before the end. It truly shocked me. And then it went on in her viewpoint…after death. Was that a book by Connie Willis? It had the Titanic in it, but I can’t remember the title.

  18. I’m with Nancy.
    I like the HEA ending.
    I’m a sucker for it.
    There’s enough tragedy in my local news to fill that quota.
    I say fiction is the perfect place not to kill them all, Joe, (at least not the heroes).
    I love the justice of the hero/ine living somewhere out there just waiting to spring back into action (after they narrowly escape, that is).

  19. I think you can “kill ’em all” in a stand-alone work, Joe, or even in a trilogy, but it is tough to do in a long-running series where the audience has become emotionally invested in the character. Conan Doyle’s experience with Holmes comes readily to mind, as does, ahem, Paul Sheldon’s attempt to kill off Misery in MISERY. More recently, I am still a bit emotionally unsettled over the proposition that James Lee Burke may have (or maybe not) ended Dave Robicheaux’s run in THE GLASS RAINBOW. I think most readers prefer to see a long-running and beloved protagonist limp off into the sunset, bloodied and maybe bowed, but alive.

  20. I’m chiming in a few days late – work has a way of taking up much of my time, so apologies for the overdue comment…

    Taylor already gave the example of Stephen King’s The Stand, and as a reader, no other book gave me as much enjoyment as this book did. King did not kill off all the main characters, but he did remove some from the story line in spectacular fashion. All of the deaths were necessary for the story to move on, even if I was shocked at some of King’s ‘victims’.

    As for my own writing, I’ve only killed off bad guys thus far. But with more experience, I’m sure I’ll progress to riskier removals.

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