Writing a good death: Part 3


What happens when you kill your main character and your fans revolt?

This week a new Sherlock Holmes story was discovered [1]. This excites me as a fan of Holmes and of Doyle’s other works. You can read the news by following the link in my footnotes. It’s also good timing, as I was already planning on looking at Sherlock Holmes’ first demise.

If there’s ever been a bad death in fiction, then it is the original demise of Sherlock Holmes at the hands of Professor Moriarty. Having Holmes fall to his death during the “Final Problem” may have seemed like the necessary thing to do, but the scene at Reichenbach Falls became infamous before it was legendary. Simply put, the fans didn’t want it. One researcher, Miller[2], even goes so far as to say that a lady on the streets of London actually hit Doyle over the head with an Umbrella.

It wasn’t that Doyle was unaware of Sherlock’s popularity, it was just that as an author Doyle wanted to write other things. He felt his best work was something other than the Holmes stories. The death its self is ambiguous and one suspects that the author probably knew he would have to write Holmes back to life again. Which he did several years later. Whether it was done from a love of money or love of the fans is hard to say, but Conan Doyle certainly had a love hate relationship with his favourite protagonist.

Here’s some points we learn from all of this.

1) If you’ve decided to kill your main character, make sure it’s a certainty, otherwise you’ll end up with the best return in all fiction, and not a final bow.

2) Fans matter. If your fans feel cheated or let down you’re in trouble. Think carefully before killing off your protagonist. Done well, it can be a brilliant master stroke. After all, who wants to be hit over the head with an umbrella?

3) If you’re writing a series, be careful. If there are more books left in a series you will have a difficult time engaging fans if the character they know and love has died. Unless of course you’re in the habit of killing everyone and it’s become expected. In this case the deaths themselves are part of the attraction. They keep the reader guessing. Who’s next? (Not that I’m referencing any particular author here, honest!…)

What ever you choose, make a choice and stick with it. It will be obvious if you started with one purpose in mind and then changed your decision. Your novel may even need a complete re-write.


1- http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/11425042/Read-the-lost-Sherlock-Holmes-story-found-in-an-attic.html

2 – http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/mystery/essays/doylevholmes.html


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