Books and Films Where the Protagonist Dies

Following on from an interesting discussion I was having a few days ago, I’ve been thinking about stories where the key protagonist dies at the end of the book. Always a controversial way to end a storyline, it can be downright book-at-the-wall territory.

I guess it comes down to what you are looking to get out of the books and films you read. If you are looking for the classic hero’s journey, losing that character – that proxy vehicle of your hopes and dreams – can be downright distressing. Then again, if you are motivated by unconventional plots and enjoy a surprise ending then it might be a pleasant experience of difference – ‘Well wasn’t that clever?’

I’ve been wracking my brains to think of books where this happens, but a number of films immediately came to mind, such as American Beauty and Sin City (where the cop – Harrigan? – kills himself at the end to save Nancy). As it happens, I did read Mark Lawrence’s ‘Emperor of Thorns’, last in his three books series. If you have not read this and want to – LOOK AWAY NOW! In the third book the narrator Jorg (and this is all first person) kills himself so that he can find and save his dead older brother in the worlds beyond (and save the world). The final sections are written by a ‘data-ghost’ of Jorg created by the ‘machines of the builders’.

In terms of plot construction and narration, it’s a tricky balance, trying to withhold enough information so the end is not telegraphed. I guess this is in the territory of the ‘unreliable narrator’.

Although I don’t really enjoy these types of endings, as long as the central character stays true to their initially sketched nature and goals, I’m willing to accept them.

So where do you come down in the debate? Can anyone out there think of a book where the narrator dies?

PS: On 9th and 10th November I’ll be at Brisbane Supanova with a whole bunch of copies of Calvanni, Scytheman and Sorcerer, hot off the press. Come and say hello.

You can also find them at on-line retailers like Amazon.

 New Calvanni CoverScytheman CoverSorcerer Cover


Cross-posted at chrismcmahons blog.


54 thoughts on “Books and Films Where the Protagonist Dies

  1. Clint Eastwood’s character (and POV of the film) kills himself at the end of Gran Torino, and again he let the POV character die in Million Dollar Baby. Myself, one of the first books I wrote has the POV character die at the end of the story. People complained about a two-hankie book, not a book toss.

  2. In Elizabeth Moon’s Remnant Population, the (elderly female) protagonist dies at the end of the book. Which is not unexpected (“elderly female”, remember, on a primitive frontier planet), and is still a good ending IMO.

    1. Yes, she does. Remnant Population is one of my favorites. This is odd, because I normally don’t like it when protagonists die, but it was handled so well! That book is a sleeper by Elizabeth Moon standards. I met many die hard fans, wider read than I of her opus who’d never heard of it– even months after it came out.

  3. Novels: “The World According To Garp”, “Slaughterhouse Five”, “The Dogs Of War”
    Graphic novels “V For Vendetta”, “300”
    Films “To Live And Die In LA”, “Thelma And Louise”, “Sunset Boulevard”, “Vanishing Point”, “The Professional”

    That’s off the top of my head–I’m sure I can think of more. (I am restricting myself to works in which death is permanent. The TV show “Supernatural” features main characters who die all the time, but it doesn’t mean anything.)

    1. Thanks, Misha. Yes – Suprnatural. Why get stressed about anything that happens on that show? How many times have they come back from the dead? I’ve lost count.

  4. The two mentioned so far that I know, Gran Torino and V for Vendetta, both have a minor character becomes a man / new leader, so we still have someone to root for and triumph as well as tragedy. (Much more so in the graphic novel of V, where Evey has lots more backstory and chapters independant of V.) In fact, that’s pretty much the plot of Mistborn as well.

    So, if the promises to the reader are fulfilled, and the protagonist accomplishes their goals, it can be powerful and avoid book hitting wall.

  5. Mercedes Lackey’s Last Herald Mage trilogy, Vanyal Ashkevron dies. It’s been so heavily foreshadowed that it’s no surprise, and he takes a lot of baddies with him. Her protagonist in “Firestorm” also dies, again it’s been foreshadowed in that book and in other books. In “Firestorm,” the poor MC has been driven into such a corner that it’s almost a relief when he finally crosses to the Havens. In those cases, it works, or if the MC dies of old age after a long and fulfilling life.

    I’ve killed off one main character, but not the central protagonist, and it was difficult to do well. I’m not sure I’m a good enough writer to off my central protagonist.

  6. I wrote a book where the protagonist apparently died, a cliffhanger. I got actual hate mail. Really. So I added an epilogue that made it clear that no, he wasn’t dead, but he was injured and in deep trouble.
    It took me some time to get over the shock; hate mail? Then I realized it was a compliment. People had identified with the character and didn’t want the book to end. If you’re a writer, you want to write something that readers won’t forget, and I succeeded in that.
    But I learned a lesson. The newest book also has a cliffhanger, but the epilogue makes it clear that no, he didn’t die. And I even ended it with a joke to make the readers feel good after the bit of doubt from the cliffhanger. Mail has been much more supportive.

  7. I think sometimes the writer is reaching for that really neat twist at the end that is almost required in flash fiction. It’s tough to pull off in a novel. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The reader, as you say, identifies with the character, and after a whole novel, has internalized the whole “world concept,” and may not appreciate have it shaken.

  8. Guardians of the Flame series by Joel Rosenberg. I stopped reading them after the central character, Karl, was killed.

    1. The first two that came to my mind also. The one I can’t believe no one in this group of Heinlein fans has mentioned though, is Podkayne of Mars.

      I know I’ve read some others along the same lines as Podkayne, where the book is first person, like it is all journal entries, and the last entry is along the lines of, “of the six of us left not a one of us isn’t wounded multiple times, I’m down to half a magazine of ammo, and the enemy is about to breach the wall.” It can be done well, but an author needs to not overdo it, one Alamo style heroic last stand book can be great, end more than one book that way and your readers are going to expect it and start to veer away.

      1. Podkayne of Mars didn’t die, though. She was just very, very badly hurt. If I remember correctly. I could just be blanking out the trauma. That one stuck with me.

        1. Actually after I wrote that I remembered that there are two versions of that book, with different endings. In one she dies, and in the other she is just very badly injured. I think (but could be wrong on the sequence) that RAH wrote it with her dying, but the publisher didn’t like it, so he wrote an alternate ending where she was just badly injured, and that was what was originally published, then later it was republished with the original ending where she died.

          1. Oh, I didn’t know that; thanks for the info. It actually explains a lot about the ending as I read it.

            Kind of like Villette by Charlotte Bronte: she wrote an ambiguous ending instead of killing off the hero because her father (I think?) didn’t like the original. But she couldn’t completely change it, either, so it really reads that he’s dead.

  9. The latest Rocky was supposed to end with Rocky dead. In the end it was vetoed by the studio. The death was heavily foreshadowed and the ending was so wonky, that I really think it should’ve ended that way.

  10. Harry Dresden has a book almost entirely from the perspective, or such, of the hero being essentially dead. Guess what happened earlier at the end of the previous book? He also uses a temporary death as a tool earlier in the series.

    Also, the video game Persona 3. (Since there are people here, who, like me, might not have the stuff to play the game, there is a Let’s Play of it at the Let’s Play archive.)

    Historically, the Birkenhead and Regulus…

    Sometimes a person has to choose between the goals of their values and life.

    I’ve a more in depth vein of thought and feeling, but I do not feel confident that I can quickly articulate something I am willing to stand behind.

    Stories can absolutely have the main or viewpoint character die, as long as it is to achieve a goal, or a decision that resonates with values.

    The Birkenhead and Regulus are more strongly moving to me than the other two examples I cite.

  11. In one of my stories, second in a series, the boyfriend, fiance, of the main character has to die. I didn’t want him to die. I therefore have a eight or nine book series that is missing approximately ten k word ending. I have got to go back and kill him off… someday. Still haven’t got the courage and she’s about to marry the man who will raise the deceased twins. Yeah, it’s a problem.

  12. I’d consider 13th Warrior a contender. The viewpoint character is really just a narrative frame around a retelling of Beowulf, and in true Scandinavian style a saga is a life-to-death story — so in that sense the film is staying true to the source material.

    That said, the tradition of *my* people leads me to not kill off main characters. Not in their own books. That’s just rude 😀

  13. “I am Legend” the book was done well and made perfect sense.

    “Sherlock Holmes – The Final Problem” I’m not certain this was done well. The public was outraged so much he didn’t stay dead.

    It also brings up the issue of why and how a author hates his main character enought to kill them.

    1. You don’t have to hate your MC enough to kill him. Someone mentioned Vanyel of the Last Herald-Mage series as being a main character who died. He _had_ to. There were supposed to be no more Herald Mages. The ending of a book/movie/other type of story needs to be what it needs to be even if it’s not the most popular thing ever.

      By the time I had read that trilogy, Vanyel felt like a good friend. Misty Lackey killed him in grand fashion, but it fit what was needed and he went out in a fitting manner. The only time I ever REALLY got upset about the death of a character was in the Battletech Universe when Grayson Carlyle, commander extraordinaire and hero of the entire Inner Sphere died of FREAKING LEUKEMIA in a hospital bed instead of in combat where it needed to happen. That type of thing happens in real life, but it didn’t have to happen to a fictional one. They could have give him a fitting end.

      1. John Wayne in The Shootist. It was his last movie and he was dying of cancer, so he played a character that was also dying of cancer, but in the movie he goes out in a gunfight instead of dying in bed. Some people liked the movie (I did) some didn’t, but it was a fitting last movie for him. Now that I mention that one, he also died in The Cowboys, and I’ve never heard a John Wayne fan complain about that one.

  14. David Drake has some stories where the protagonist dies. But Drake has some stories where the entire ensemble cast dies, so…

    Melanie Rawn killed off the two MC’s she built a trilogy on.

    Steven Spielberg’s AI, grand cinematic vision. Hated it. The entire human race dies. Blech. (Though the protagonist did ‘live.’)

    Most of the time, to avoid wall dents, there has to be some sense of continuity. Of mission, of life-work, of family. Something. The death itself cannot be the point. “And they died. Sorry.” Nope, book in flight.

    The very few exceptions wherein the story’s a little (a lot) bleak and the MC dies and you’re not left with hope or continuity, I generally knew that going in. The nature of the story was of the last bleak moments, so I’m not entirely shocked and I’m in the headspace to appreciate the humanity of it. See David Drake.

    But, if as others have noted the continuity or expectations are dashed with the character? I may stab that book and burn it on the altar of bad taste. While the real world may often suck, I really don’t need to read the details in fiction. I can go peruse the reality if I’m feeling sick in the head.

    1. IIRC, though a short story, “The Long Watch” by Heinlein was story where the main character died by sacrificing himself.

      Critical notes: the death was, as in the story of Thermopylae, NOT pointless.

      AI? Blech.

      1. Yeah, “The Long Watch” is a good one. Most any story of Thermopylae reads well for me. Also by Heinlein is “The Year of the Jackpot.” Oddly reads well for me despite the ending, maybe because Heinlein still seems so enamored of humanity in the story.

        Gallipoli worked for me, as well.

        A certain trend might be seen. Sacrificing for noble goals, or just for your fellows, works better for me than just dying. Even putatively pointless sacrifice.

        Charles De Lint did a treatment in “The Mystery of Grace” that just left me sad and irritated.

        I don’t think I would try to kill off a MC, at least not right now. It takes a finesse and a very strong story to survive it.

      2. “The Long Watch” is far and away Heinlein’s best work IMO. And yeah the Thermopylae/Alamo type stories where the MC’s sacrifice themselves for a good reason are generally the ones that work for me; and they can work very well indeed.

    2. AI would have been a better movie if it had just ended there with the ‘bot in the sunken car, wishing away endlessly, rather than with the seemingly tacked-on alien intervention (And if they were so powerful, why the “Only once and only for 24 hours” limitation? Cheap!)

  15. I’m not clear if you’re talking about first-person narrated stories where the narrator dies, or third person stories where the central character (particularly those where the viewpoint has stayed with him, never switching to another character dies. There’s a tradition, which isn’t honored so much anymore, that a first person narrative is something that the narrator has written down. That makes it hard for the first person narrator to die at the end. A novel from the early 1950s which I’ve never read is The Rat Race by Jay Franklin but when Groff Conklin reviewed it in his book review column in Galaxy magazine, he complained that the narrator died at the end before he could possibly have written his story down. (Conklin’s disdain didn’t prevent H. L. Gold from reprinting the novel as Galaxy Novel #10). I’ve read stories where the protagonist is about to die at the end, but it stops there. Roger Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows ends with the title character falling to his death (sorry if I’m ruining endings for anyone here), *but* there is a possibility that he might be saved at the last minute by another character. I don’t know if Alan Quatermain was the last novel or story that H. Rider Haggard wrote about the title character, but at the end Quatermain dies. The story has been first person narration up to the point where Quatermain’s narrative stops, then another character takes over the writing to say how he died. I’ve read several first person short stories in which the the narrator dies while writing down the story. Robert Sheckley had one story end in the middle of a word. Others end with an em-dash or an ellipsis. H. P. Lovecraft did several stories in which the narrator dies, either as he’s fiercely writing down what’s happening as the *thing* approaches, or with a note along the lines of “The following papers were found among the effects of __________ after his odd demise (or disappearance) and, though he requested that they be destroyed, we felt they should be made known to the world, yadda, yadda). Many of Fredric Brown’s short-short stories end with the demise of the viewpoint character, though I don’t offhand recall any which were first person narratives. Incidentally, John Wayne died in two other movies, Sands of Iwo Jima and The Alamo. In the latter, he played Davy Crockett, so history required that he die, though he went out with a bang, literally, fatally wounded, but managing to lurch into the ammunition room with a burning torch in his hand, blowing up part of the Alamo (and probably several of Santa Anna’s men). At the end of the last episode of Blake’s 7, all but one of the good guys (well, relatively good) are shot down, except for one, and he’s surrounded by the bad guys pointing guns at him, fadeout. And in the 1970s and1980s a lot of horror movies ended with the hero (and, usually the heroine) apparently having escaped, then another of the *things* jumps out, freeze-frame in mid leap. There were so many of those that I was surprised that Ripley survived at the end of the movie Alien, and I’ve read that at one point they didn’t plan for her to survive. I don’t recall the title, but there’s a movie with, IIRC, Mickey Rooney, Candice Bergen, and Gene Hackman where at the end Hackman is the only survivor and has apparently killed off his adversarie, and he’s walking away from the scene of the last battle, and the camera pulls back, and the crosshairs of a rifle’s telescopic sight is zeroing in on his head, freeze frame. My brother and I were watching that one on TV sometime in the 1980s, and he commented,”No wonder Star Wars was such a hit. People were tired of movies where no one gets out alive except the cameraman.” Yes.

    1. P.S. After dorking around a bit on, I see that the Gene Hackman movie whose title I couldn’t remember was called “The Domino Killings,” released in 1977, the same year as Star Wars.

  16. Movie: Gallipoli.
    TV: Doctor Who – I still remember the 5th doctor and Adric’s death. The first companion death in years.

  17. Might toss in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress — Mike is dead, or at least hiding. I don’t care if he is a computer, he’s one of he protagonists, too! Also Stranger in a Strange Land. Hey, that’s another Mike, isn’t he?

    The Liaden Universe (r) also kills off some folks. In the Crystal Duo, the main male protagonist dies, as does the elder advisor. (Thinking about it, killing the elder wise person is almost de rigeur, isn’t it? I think the Hero’s Journey play book calls for it?)

      1. What can I say? Bringing dead favorites back to life seems to be another trope, altogether. The Resurrection Shuffle? But when he died, it sure seemed to be permanent.

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