The Cardinal Sin No Writer Should Ever Commit

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!


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?

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