Yes, I’ve done it, at least seven times—and possibly more, depending on your definition of “death”—but it’s not as though every story has to end with someone dying. So what makes the difference between a necessary death and an unnecessary death?
1) Don’t have your protagonist die just to pound home a message.
This is different from having your protagonist die as part of the book’s theme. If the theme is mortality, or the cold, uncaring nature of the universe, or self-sacrifice, it might be perfectly appropriate.
I’m talking about a message as distinct from a theme, message fantasy again. If your book tackles Very Important Social Issues, don’t kill your heroes as an example of the injustice of your opposition. This sacrifices story and characters, once again, to propaganda. I think that the best and most powerful fantasy stories succeed at making the audience think because they’re also good stories, not because of the Issues in them. It’s perfectly possible to write about sexism, racism, classism, intolerance of homosexuality, the cruelty of war, environmentalism, and so on, and produce a great essay, but bad art.
If you’re wondering whether it’s a message or a theme, I suggest a simple test: Can you phrase it as a simple question, and are you thinking about killing your protagonist as an answer to that question? For example: Are men prejudiced against women? Yes, all of them, horribly, and it shows in that the hero winds up killing the heroine because he can’t deal with a woman who’s stronger than he is.
That’s a message, not a theme.
A death that answers, expresses, or contradicts the book’s theme should never be so simple to achieve. It should cost (as should all protagonist deaths; see points 3 and 5). It should startle the other characters, not just offer them an answer and beat them over the head with a stick for not seeing it before. There should be ambiguity—so no characters stepping forward to make a speech about how Self-Sacrifice Is Everywhere, and Wasn’t He Brave, in such a way that there’s no room left for doubt about the author shouting through his mouth. One thing that makes message fantasy so simple and shallow is that it throws everything into harsh black and white. Leave room for a rainbow of emotions regarding the death in there, and you’ve got a much better one.
2) The protagonist’s death needs to be meaningful.
This means that a lot of the tricks that we might expect in a mainstream novel where a character dies should not be used. A minor character might well die by falling down the stairs and breaking her head open. A fantasy hero shouldn’t.
There’s an impulse to give a hero loopholes in a lot of fantasy, like magical powers that he doesn’t use until the last minute, weapons he forgets about until he needs them, or a riddle whose answer he learns but doesn’t apply until the confrontation with the villain. I’ve already spoken before about how I think authors overuse those tricks. I think they can also be overused when trying to come up with a death. If you have your hero die just because he forgot to use his magical weapon, it’s a cheat. It’s often contrived, in that the author just forces the hero to forget about it. And when we’ve gotten hundreds of pages of investment in this character (one place that it might work is an ironic short story; I’m talking mostly about novels here, though), it can make a reader really, really angry to see the author trying to be cool and ironic about the climax.
If the hero does make a mistake that leads to his death, it should be a horrible, awful, tragic one. It should come from a character flaw, like jumping to conclusions, a hasty temper, or thinking that he’s stronger and more powerful than he really is. It should not come just from forgetting something, from not knowing something (especially if he had no possible way to know that thing), or because the author is in a bad mood and wants the character to suffer. It should be part of the story as a whole, and given that most fantasies deal with grand and sweeping emotions even when they focus on just one character or just one part of their world, making the ending that jeering and dispassionate is a mistake on the author’s part.
3) If your protagonist is no longer someone we care about, don’t expect his death to matter.
I’ve read a few fantasy novels where the protagonist acted consistently stupider, more careless, more immature, or more set in his follies as the story went on. What the author was aiming for was a character who would die, and, at the moment of death, be transfigured by realization of his mistakes, and the death itself, into a hero. That’s the Martyr Complex, and it’s a mistake to try and use it.
Most martyrs are figures that either sought their deaths and had them piled on them (like a lot of Christian saints), or were seen as innocent and unworthily cut down in their prime (like John F. Kennedy). A fantasy hero who is supposedly a jerk until a last moment of heroism doesn’t fit either category. Killing him just as he starts learning better is a road to cheap sentimentality, like making the first scene with your character one of abuse. It may make the audience sniffle, but it’s nothing like the sharp punch to the solar plexus that the truly meaningful death of someone we care about causes. If I don’t care about this person in life, why should I when he dies?
The same thing can happen with fantasies that I call “legend-slaying,” which take the mythic world and open up the tropes behind it. The young hero goes to meet the old one and learns that he is really a drunk, a liar, an unworthy man with one moment of splendor, etc. The story spends most of its time busily destroying the old hero’s reputation, revealing the legends as pale. Then the old man ends up dying (usually sacrificing his life for the younger), and we’re supposed to believe that that not only provides a shining example to the young hero but makes the old one a great figure in retrospect.
Sharp as a serpent’s tooth is a thankless author! She’s just turned on her own theme and bitten it to death. If one moment of glory doesn’t make someone a hero, then why is this moment supposed to make two people heroes?
The answer, of course, is that the old mentor has to be shown changing into a wise and meaningful person over the course of the story, someone whose death matters, who wouldn’t just die alone and drunk in a cabin and have no one care. But authors either forget this in their busy legend-slaying, or leave it until too late, so that the old mentor’s change of heart feels rushed and forced.
This applies perhaps most of all to parodic, satiric, or otherwise humorous fantasies. The best of them come from love of the subject, and frustration with what it could be but isn’t. If you really, really hate fantasies where the heroes match their legends—not just mourn for their lost potential and wish you could find a good one, but really hate them—then it would be best not to write a legend-slaying story with a forced redemption at the end. It’ll feel like what it is, a series of cheap shots.
4) A protagonist’s death doesn’t have to redeem or save anything, if it’s done right.
Do it right, and you can have your readers sobbing, and not cursing you, for making the protagonist die as he does something brave but foolish, or trying as hard as he can to save the world…but not succeeding. Remember, in a tragic fantasy the “if only” factor is prominent. If things had only been a little different, then this character could have lived, but circumstances said otherwise.
A protagonist who dies in this way has to be built up consistently throughout the story, however. If he cares about revenge so much that he won’t wait for the army to come defeat the Dark Lord but has to sprint forward, try to do it himself, and get killed (hello, Fingolfin), then that ending has to be in character. He can’t have been a gentle person who didn’t particularly care about the Dark Lord all through the story, and then change his mind now.
Likewise, the protagonists who sacrifice themselves uselessly for the sake of people they never seemed to care about? Stupid, stupid, stupid. This is where the Miss Sucky Fantasy Heroine syndrome strikes again. If she has a political rival who’s incredibly jealous of her and really believes she can’t save the world, would that political rival sacrifice her life so Miss Sucky Fantasy Heroine could get away, especially if it looked as though that tactic would just delay the villain for a second? I would imagine not. She would probably be glad to see a political danger gone.
Major characters in the story should not die just because someone, even the author, wants them to. It has to be a natural outgrowth of the story and their personalities. “The book is the boss,” said Alfred Bester, and I think he was right.
5) No cheating resurrections.
This doesn’t count if the hero fakes his own death and runs away so no one can find him again (an ending I’ve used twice, although both times my characters sincerely didn’t know if they were going to survive). That still costs the character, since his friends think he’s dead and he won’t be able to be around them any more, and I would count it as tragic enough in its own right, although the author ruins it if she reunites them in a sequel.
But having the hero die and then be brought back by magic or a god? No. No. NO. AARGH, OUCH. It hurts us, yes it does. That’s a way of doing a triple “having your cake and eating it too” thing. The character gets the praise and adulation for having nobly sacrificed his life, may (and usually does) get to hear people saying grand things about him while he’s in limbo or whatever, and then gets the reunion with all its laughter and tears. There is no cost at all.
If they die, they should stay dead, either in other people’s perceptions or truly. Once again, “the book is the boss.” If the story would make the most sense and be truest to itself with a dead protagonist, don’t introduce some god with compassion for him at the ending just because you can’t bear to let go. The author is God to her characters, but that means being Thanatos, too.
Should protagonists be killed? Yes, if it would make the story better. But only in the right ways.