BLOG

The Cardinal Sin No Writer Should Ever Commit

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

This post contains SPOILERS for the newly released book Allegiant by Veronica Roth. So if you're planning to read the book and don't want to know what happens, then click off this post and come back after you've finished the book!

I already made the mistake on Twitter of blabbering about Allegiant with no thought to the those who might not want to know what happens. I won't make the same mistake here! So again, please don't read further if you want to avoid a MAJOR spoiler.

I read the first two books in the popular dystopian Divergent series this past year. But they didn't wow me, especially the second book, Insurgent, which I thought was rather slow and confusing at times.

But my daughter LOVED both. So she kept me well informed when the countdown began for the third book's release. When the big day came, she asked me to buy it for the Kindle since the wait for it at the library was like a million years long.

I clicked over to Amazon to check on price for the Kindle and the audio versions. And to my utter bafflement, the book had less than three stars as the overall rating. Of course, I was even more astonished to see that the one star reviews completely outnumbered the five.

As I started browsing to see why the book had garnered so many one stars, I read things like:

"Possibly the Worst Trilogy Ending I've Ever Read" and " Horrible Just Horrible!!" and "Outraged"

After seeing those headings, I had to read the reviews. I couldn't help it. I wanted to know why readers hated this book!

SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!

The number ONE reason why readers hated the book was because in the end, Roth KILLS OFF her main character. Yes, the heroine DIES.

Over and over in the reviews readers say they felt betrayed by Roth, that now they wish they hadn't read any of the books in the series, that they won't read them again or go see the movies.

The bottom line is that readers are crushed. They invested time and money into the books. More importantly they invested emotional energy into falling in love with the heroine. And after waiting with such expectancy for the series to come to a satisfying conclusion, they are instead left feeling empty and hopeless.

After reading the reviews, I now have absolutely NO desire to read the last book. In fact, I now felt like I wasted my time reading the first two. So even though I haven't read Allegiant, I can completely relate with what readers are saying about it.

As I analyzed the overall reader reaction (along with my personal response), I quickly realized that Roth committed a Cardinal Sin that no writer should ever commit. And that's this: Don't kill your main character.

They trusted her to bring the series to a satisfying conclusion. And she let them down. Let's face it, most of the time killing a main character just doesn't work, especially at the end of a dystopian trilogy (which is already hopeless enough). (As a side note: Killing a main character rarely works in a movie either. Those kind of movies always leave me feeling let down.)

Maim the heroine, hurt her, kill off minor characters? Perhaps.

But never, EVER, kill your main character. Period.

In the original version of my first book, The Preacher's Bride, I had my hero languishing in prison at the end of the book (because that's what happened to him in real life). My publisher kindly asked me to change the ending so that the hero was released and reunited with his wife. And even though I balked at the idea of fictionalizing the ending, I rewrote the last chapter to reflect a happy reunion.

Over and over, I've gotten feedback from readers who say that they loved the ending and that it made them cry.

I shudder to think if I'd insisted on having my own way and kept my hero in prison just so the story could remain true-to-life. I'm pretty sure I would have had a LOT of disappointed readers who likely wouldn't have gone on to read any more of my books.

The fact is, readers want the last page to leave them with hope. They want to walk away feeling joy and satisfaction that someone could do the impossible and beat the odds.

Let's face it. There's already enough tragedy in the world. Enough heartache. Enough loss. Readers pick up a book to escape that reality. They don't want their reading experience to mimic life as they know it. They want the reading experience to transcend it, to make them aspire to live better and be different.

So, dear writer friends, let all of Allegiant's one star reviews teach us a lesson. Refrain from killing off your main character, no matter what kind of lesson you hope to teach, no matter how realistic you want to be, no matter what kind of literary statement you hope to make.

Reader's want hope. Give it to them.

What do you think? Is there ever a time when it could work to kill a main character? Or do you agree with me that it's a Cardinal Sin?

33 comments:

  1. I haven't read any of Roth's books but I've felt quite disappointed when I read a book where the main character dies. Actually, it was the first book in a trilogy and at the very end of the book the author makes the reader believe the heroine dies. Honestly, I felt quite let down and even angry. When I googled the trilogy I realized the reader finds out in book 2 that the heroine doesn't actually die (just gets badly hurt). But by then I'd lost the desire to continue the trilogy.

    I remember reading book in middle school where the main character dies but it doesn't seem so sad because from the very beginning the author hints on the fact that the character will die. It worked well.
    Also, I watched a movie where the main character was the one narrating the story and although he dies at the end, it doesn't seem so bad because his death lead to things changing in the society (the people responsible for his death were caught) and brought hope. His narrating even continued after he'd died. So although he was dead, his voice remained. That also worked well.

    I guess all this to say, killing off a main character at the end of the book is a big No No unless you know ow to make it work.

    Thanks so much for sharing Jody!

    Tell the World

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree. If the author wants to kill off the main character, there must be some sort of preparation first. Nice hints or foreshadowing. Otherwise it just seems the murdering of the darling was purely for shock value. Blessings!

      Delete
  2. Like Funtó says, it depends on the genre and how you handle it. It can work, but the readers need fair warning.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Well now, I think this is a little more complicated and sticky than how you make it sound. Off the top of my head, I can list probably a dozen books where this happens, some of them really good sellers. Take for example Message in a Bottle, A Walk to Remember, and The Best of Me, all by Nicholas Sparks. All movies or soon to be movies. All with a really strong amount of romance in the novels.

    And the really weird thing about The Best of Me? I actually like that the hero dies in the end. I mean, I liked the hero. I didn't want him to die. But if he hadn't died and his heart been donated to save the life of the heroine's son, the book wouldn't have come full circle, would it?

    Even in Mocking Jay, Collins doesn't kill off Katniss, but she may as well have with how hopelessly she left the protagonist.

    So yes, the romantic, HEA loving side of me hates when a main character dies (or even when a story ends without hope). Most of the time, I won't read a book if I know I won't like the ending. Perhaps a better question is "When is it acceptable to kill your main characters?" But not to say it's never acceptable.

    Right now, I'm planning to read Above All Things by Tanis Rideout. The main characters both die, at the top of Mount Everest, without reaching the peak, and after sacrificing everything for the chance to climb it. So yeah, part of me balks at reading a novel that's going to end that way. And yet, the novel got published, didn't it? And it's sold well in Canada. And I actually want to read it because the writing looks beautiful and the book looks like it tackles some in depth emotional struggles between a man and wife. So I'll probably read it despite the ending, because I know it will linger with me. I mean, the hero's tragic legend still lingers today, with or without a novelization of his life.

    Literary fiction and classic novels are full of stories where the protagonist dies. Call of the Wild, McTeague, Anna Karenina, etc.

    Usually the main characters don't die in popular fiction, but every once in a while they do. So yeah, I think the better question is "Why does the hero dying work in The Best of Me and not in Allegiant?"

    ReplyDelete
  4. Interesting question, Jody. I read "Cross Roads" by William P. Young this year, which seems to defy your premise. Like Naomi, I wasn't troubled by the ending, because I was prepared for it by the author. He definitely left me with a sense of hope, purpose, and encouragement, despite the loss. Another reason I wasn't bothered is because unlike some readers, I don't read a book in order to escape reality, but rather to make sense of it. Stories can help explain the heartaches, losses, etc. that we can never truly escape in this life.

    ~ Betsy

    ReplyDelete
  5. When I read books I want to be able to relate, to feel what the characters are feeling, to cheer them on because I have an idea what they are going through. Thus I like books that are true to life, that aren't always rainbows and butterflies. Life is hard and I believe that should be portrayed even in fiction.

    That being said, I completely agree with your final statement...that readers want hope. So the ending of a book doesn't have to put the characters in a place where everything is perfect. They can still struggle, they haven't always "arrived," but there has to be that element of hope. When I complete a book I don't want to feel depressed. I want that sigh of satisfaction. I think every reader does.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Jody, Great insight. Obviously, if the writer plans a series then the main character has to survive, but writing freestanding novels as I do, that's less of an iron-clad rule. Nevertheless, I agree that by and large the main character has to not only survive but be the instrument of bringing the novel to its conclusion.
    On the other hand, I have been known to kill off a lesser character--sometimes even the second most important one--when it seemed best to do it.
    I recall a story James Scott Bell tells about an editor complaining that a character in a novel (not the lead) died. He received this answer: "I didn't kill him. I found him dead." Only a writer could understand and identify with that statement.
    Thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I have to agree that it's a Cardinal Sin. One of my stories was going to have an ending like that. One of the main characters was going to die and the next story was going to focus on the remaining MC and bring in a new MC. I'm hesitant to do that, though, because what if people fall in love with the MC that doesn't make it? :/

    ReplyDelete
  8. Yeah, I don't want the MC to die! But I'm a happily-ever-after gal!

    ReplyDelete
  9. I generally am not impressed with stories where the main character dies. However, the example that immediately comes to mind is the movie "I am Legend." On the DVD, there is an alternate ending which happens as I thought it originally should when I saw the movie at the theater. Of course, this alternate ending which left the MC alive fell flat after I had seen the original ending. In this case, he had nothing left to live for and he died solving the problem.
    I also reviewed this book on my blog, if people would like the reasons behind my dissatisfaction with this series finale: http://middleagedcoed.wordpress.com/2013/11/04/mixed-feelings-about-allegiant/

    ReplyDelete
  10. I finally got my hubby to read a book. He picked " Uncle Toms Cabin." He hasn't read a book since because he hates it when main characters die....same thing with movies. I don't exactly feel that way because in real life it happens. I can see however how readers would have felt they wasted their time.

    ReplyDelete
  11. In the case of Nicholas Sparks, he writes what's often called mainstream romance where one of main characters will almost always die. Danielle Steele writes the same kind of story.

    If, however, you write a standard romance, you should never, ever kill off one of the romantic couple because readers will throw your book against the wall, pick it up, shred it to pieces, then twitter or give a bad review to anyone who will listen.

    Readers of other types of genre fiction are a bit more forgiving of death, but most readers don't like it, and you should have a dang good reason for it to happen as well as an acceptance that you will lose a good chunk of your readers for your next book.

    As someone said, real life is such a downer, that most of us don't need it in our fiction.

    ReplyDelete
  12. One of the most amazing endings I can think of is 1984, when Winston is 100% won over by Big Brother. Disturbing! Awful! And absolutely what had to happen.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I think, judging from the reviews, the cardinal sin is actually something else: don't throw something shocking like a protagonist death into the end of your series without warning or a BELIEVABLE one, so that is has meaning.

    It seems like the other books (and I've read NONE so yeah, no clue if this is true I'm going 100% off reviews) didn't have the lead-up to an inevitable death, or at least not in a way that made sense once it happened. The death felt pointless, it seems, to many.

    GRRM's Song of Ice and Fire, for example, makes it clear that if you think this has a happy ending, you're not paying attention. That's a freaking tagline basically, both from the books and the show.

    So yeah, don't throw the readers for a big loop like that after such a long amount of investment. They won't appreciate it. At all.

    But if Roth laid in clues throughout the series then idk, the reviewers and commenters clearly didn't see it. But you never just kill a main character without ample AND BELIEVABLE amounts of warning. A death has to have meaning, especially if it's the main character.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Well Jody, I guess as a Reader, I probably commit the biggest NO NO of them all and that is I always look to the end of the book,before I commence reading, to see if the hero/heroine survives!
    It really goes against my grain if that doesn't happen but I guess when all is said and done, everyone of us looks for certain points in a fave novel..just one of the idiosyncratic traits of being human!

    We will write as we see fit and if readers don't like it, they will find some other book that appeals. Rarely, will I cast any book aside. I'm usually satisfied with a short summary in which the hero/heroine is undoubtedly alive!
    I'd like to cite an example from a book by another author that I've recently read, that arouses and maintains my interest (and I quote.."But when someone appears to be sabotaging the construction work at the resort and Audrey's life is endangered, Marshall realizes she holds more of his heart than he thought and he'll do anything to keep her safe."(end of quote) Those few lines have told me everything I want to know, without too much detail and maintains my interest in the particular book.
    Tonight I watched a film and was very annoyed with the ending. It was very abrupt and I was completely "turned off."

    Jody, whether you post for writers or not, I do enjoy your posts as an avid reader, so hope you don't mind my comments appearing from time to time..

    Cheers


    ReplyDelete
  15. Reading the one-star reviews left me with the impression that the readers felt cheated by the MC having a meaningless death. It's my opinion that readers want an MC's death to be more that she "spent" or "sacrificed" her life achieving a necessary goal rather than she "lost" her life because…yeah, well.

    In Anne McCaffrey's "Moreta," not only does Moreta die, but so do three other major players, and yet it's wrenching and gorgeous and you know it's necessary in every way. It stayed with me for a while after I finished the book because of how it was done.

    Tragedy is fine if it leads to catharsis. Tragedy that's done for "wow" factor is going to leave readers angry.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're cool for referencing that book. I also agree with you 100%.

      Delete
  16. I SO agree, Jody! For awhile, I was chewing on something similar. A four book series, each with separate main characters. With #3, I was considering murdering the main character from the FIRST book. After thinking about this for several days, I just couldn't bring myself to do it. His wife and child on their own to fend for themselves? Especially after the emotional yet satisfying ending of #1? Ugh, it would've ripped my heart out! And quite possibly the hearts of anyone else who will ever read it.

    I did hear of Roth's series, and read several reviews on the first book and the second. I'll definitely not be purchasing any! Thanks for the heads up! :)

    ReplyDelete
  17. Jody

    Interesting post. The example of an MC dying at the end of the book where it doesn't affect the story negatively that jumped straight to my head is TAI-PAN by James Clavell. That has an average 4 and a bit stars on its review - from a total of 187 reviews.

    So it can be done. Maybe the author's mistake was not to set it up very well and not make it mean something that resonated with the audience?

    ReplyDelete
  18. I tried it once, but couldn't go through with it. I am not such a big fan of HEAs though. I like to leave some things unresolved.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I've thought of reading the Divergent Series, but after reading this, I definitely do not plan to as of now. I am writing a trilogy in a futuristic setting and has an apocalyptic feel. However, I try to keep things positive to some degree and have a satisfying ending planned. However, I do plan on killing one of the major characters (not the heroine, but her very close friend/at-one-time-her-boyfriend), but I want him to die heroically. At that point, my heroine will have chosen to be another character's girlfriend, so I do not plan on making the character's death a deciding factor in the love story. At the end, I plan to resolve many of the characters' futures and for my heroine to be with the one she loves. That being said, is it OK to kill a character who is not the main character (but very close) if you plan on writing a satisfying ending for the rest of your characters?

    S.G.B.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good question! I think any time we kill off a character that our readers have grown to love (and invested in), we risk alienating our fans. Obviously NOT ALL fans will have the same reaction to a character's death. But many will probably not like it (and I'm speaking of a main character that they've grown to love). For example, I read Lauren Oliver's dystopian "Delirium" this past summer. At the end of the book, it appears that the hero is going to die and she ends the book on that note. I was really depressed at the end. Instead of leaving the book on a note of hope, she left it on a note of heartache. I had no desire to read the second book. I read the reviews and learned the hero didn't die, but still I was too down to keep going with the series because I really had liked the hero.

      However, I think we can kill off characters. I think we just have to be careful which ones and for what motivation.

      Delete
  20. Hi Everyone! Sorry I'm late to the discussion here! I've loved all of your comments and appreciate your thoughts! Many of you have pointed out books where death of an MC seems to "work." If you look at Allegiant's Amazon review, there are still quite a number of people who gave the book 5 stars. So there are definitely people who don't mind when an author kills of the MC. But I would have to say that I personally would not want to outrage even a fraction of my fans, especially in today's fickle and over-saturated market. I would rather strive to make my books something that the majority of my readers can walk away from and breath a sigh of contentment rather than one of frustration. So even though we can cite examples of MC death working, I still would rather error on the side of giving hope, rather than disappointing readers.

    ReplyDelete
  21. You encapsulated exactly jmy feelings about this trilogy, this book and this choice by the author. The piece that puzzles me about this is why her editor and the publisher didn't gie her better counsel on what not to do. It seems like all of their goals would be to sell more books and while you can argue this has garnered a lot of attention, I think it is actually not the kind they want. Thanks for all your good thoughts and counsel on writing Jody and, of course, your wonderful books!

    ReplyDelete
  22. This is a tough one. I can't really fault the writer, she had a concept and she followed through with it. I also understand how the readers feel, especially since she's writing for a YA audience. It's a hard road to walk between what you want as an artist and what your audience wants. I don't envy the author.

    ReplyDelete
  23. I think the most important is to stay true to the story and its characters. Some stories would sound fake and sugarcoated if you forced a happy ending there. Don't be afraid of your readers' reactions, write the best story, not the most pleasing story. Death is an important part of life. I guess I prefer more, um, realistic literature and TV where anything can happen to the characters, like in A Song of Ice and Fire, Babylon 5, Joss Whedon's works. If I know the ending, if I know that no matter the hardship, they all are gonna survive, where is the intrigue, the tension? It's spoiling the ending. Besides, some of the most touching moments in stories come from death. I don't read books to experience only hope, I want to feel all sorts of things. Sometimes someone's heroic sacrifice inspires me a lot more that "happily ever after" can (like in Ivan Yefremov's Bull's Hour – I cried when one of them died, but those were good tears).

    ReplyDelete
  24. I believe it entirely depends on the situation. A great deal of unsatisfying endings (such as the death of a MC) happen when authors are pressured into writing more and more books to satisfy their readers. An author needs to write from his or her own personal creativity, inspiration, and drive. They write until they believe the story is complete.
    Until they're satisfied with their work.
    Until they're satisfied with their characters.
    But readers fall in love with characters and ask for more. This causes the author to go back to his or her "completed" story and figure out a way to twist it into one or two more books. If their writing is pressured merely by the "need for another book" rather than by their own inspiration, they usually end up doing something drastic out of desperation. This happens with television series, too. Little House on the Prairie is a good example.
    On the other hand, if the author sets up the MC's death from the beginning and adds something encouraging, inspiring, or hopeful to balance out the shock of death, it can be done exceedingly well. It can even turn out to be a good thing.
    A story that inspires.
    A story that readers learn from.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Not to belabor a point that others have already made, and I hope you don't think I'm trying to undermine you, Jody. I love your blog and your posts are always wonderful. For the most part, I agree with what you say here. But there are two movies where the protagonist died at the end, and it worked brilliantly. Forgive me for the spoilers for anyone who may not have seen the films, but both are older movies from the 80's, so a lot of people know how they end. One was Mask, about a boy with Elephantitis, and the other was Beaches, which had two protagonists who were best friends (or worst enemies, depending on the time in their lives), and one dies at the end, while the other friend is left saddened, but her life enriched by having been her friend. Niethier movie would have worked if the MC's didn't die (Rocky, the boy in Mask, was a real person who had Elephantisis, and he did die early, so the movie was meant to reflect the realism) and the movies were better for them having died at the end than they would have been had the endings been happy. That said, I know that these are extraordinarily rare exceptions, and most of the time killing the MC is a mistake. I guess my point is that like any rule, it should be used more as a guidline than a strict rule. And, I recognize that neither Mask nor Beaches was a dystopian that leaves you already feeling pretty hopeless. Not to mention, 80's. Different time. Yeah. Ok, I'll stop now. LOL. Awesome post as usual, Jody.

    ReplyDelete
  26. I agree with others that sometimes it can work. However, I agree with you as well that it can be a cardinal sin. I read Siri Mitchell's "Love's Pursuit," and was so very disappointed. I found the end completely unsatisfying, not just because it killed off a main character, but because I felt the "sad" part was more contrived than a happy ending would have been.

    I felt cheated of the time I spent reading that book and it was completely a downer. She has written other books in my preferred genre that I won't even touch because I was so upset by that one.

    Of course, I'm sure that expectations played into my disappointment. I typically read more light-hearted books and that's what I thought I was getting with this one.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for sharing your example, Crystal! I've read all of Siri's books. Yes, the ending of that book wasn't my favorite either! But her other books all end happily! :-)

      Delete
  27. When I read Allegiant, I had no idea that the heroine was going to die, so, when she did, I was surprised. I was unhappy that the character had died, but at the same time I was actually quite pleased that an author had tried that out. Unfortunately, I found the book disappointing because it didn't live up to my expectations, and ... the *way* in which the main character died.

    In Allegiant, Tris dies in a purely circumstantial situation. She would have survived, if not for an unfortunate coincidence. I felt it was unnecessary and forced.

    Personally, I have no problems with main characters being killed off at the end. I don't mind it, even without foreshadowing. I think killing off the hero/heroine is fine, as long as the character leaves behind some kind of legacy, and dies in a logical, believable way. The fact that the death of Roth's heroine was not (to me) particularly logical is what I find disappointing.

    ReplyDelete

© All the articles in this blog are copyrighted and may not be used without prior written consent from the author. You may quote without permission if you give proper credit and links. Thank you!