What if the main character dies in chapter 2?

Every so often I read a book that really makes me stop and think about how stories are told. There’s a lot of theory out there stating the ‘rules’. But, at the end of the day, anything goes as long as it works… As long as a reader engages with it.

It’s really good to be reminded that sometimes boundaries need pushing.

The following post was originally published as Manipulating Death on this blog in January 2011. I thought it worth sharing again for new readers and I still find the subject fascinating.

***

Manipulating Death

I am reading a fantasy trilogy at the moment with rather a different structure than normal. I don’t think it all quite works, but one aspect of it I am finding particularly intriguing.

The first book opens with a short section (2 chapters) from the point of view of a character who dies. I was stunned by this, because the section is not a prologue, and as readers we come to expect that the character a book opens with will have some bearing on the whole story; most often that character is the protagonist. Certainly as writers this rule is drummed into us.

The main part of the first book takes part around 20 years later, with one of the main characters deeply affected by the death of character A. He dreams about her a lot, and towards the end of the book, these dreams become more and more vivid . . .

Then we reach book 2, which takes us back to the death of character A, 20 years earlier, and proceeds to explain that, yes, she is dead, but instead of her soul departing, she has been transformed into a semi-immortal being, one of several who were alluded to all throughout book 1.

What I like about this is the subversion of expectation. All the signs now are that character A is going to be a major character in the second book at least. The complete shift in perspective at the beginning of book 2 also opens the reader’s eyes in a big way as to what was going on in book 1. I’m not sure yet whether we’ll get some events retold from this alternate perspective, but it’s possible.

I think this is a really clever and interesting way to structure a multi-volume fantasy epic, that is obviously going to broaden quite substantially in scope.

***

I haven’t revealed which novels I’m talking of, because of the spoilery nature of the discussion, but tweet me @ellenvgreg or find me on facebook if you want to know!

Have you ever read a book that subverted your expectation like this?

 

9 comments

  1. This is almost an issue that I’m struggling with in my current WIP, though it happens towards the end. Trying to find the balance between fore shadowing it enough that the reader doesn’t feel like it’s a cheap trick for shock value, while also not giving it away so that it will come as a a bit of a surprise.
    While it’s always in the back of my mind, it probably something I’ll focus on in the 2nd draft when adding more layers to everything.

    Like

    1. I’m inclined to agree that it’s easier to layer in foreshadowing in the second draft. I think authors kill characters for many reasons… sometimes it’s just the thing that has to happen.

      In the example I was referring to, there was absolutely no hint that the dead character was going to return – although in hindsight perhaps there was a little foreshadowing. But at the time she was killed (chapter 2!), the reader hadn’t really developed much of a relationship with her, so it seemed mainly to be its effect on her lover that was the point. The weird thing was that she was a POV character to start with.

      Like

  2. I suppose it all depends. There is the “promise of the premise” and a writer must deliver. I remember being majorly disappointed when Gandalf died. But then it all turned out and that made it GREAT. So if this book you allude to at least has some tiny hints that the “missing” character will return in some form, and it’s believable, the writer is still delivering on the promise.

    However, if an author gets tired of a character and just gets rid of them, that’s the BIG TRUCK THEORY of writing and it does not work!

    Like

    1. Actually the Gandalf example is a fairly good analogy with these books. I had no inkling he was going to reappear… yet it was key that he did.

      I’m not sure I did have any idea said character was going to reappear in the books I’m talking about. I was merely bemused (which is why I don’t think it worked 100%). But by the time I got to the reveal in the second book, I thought it was brilliant.

      Like

  3. I think killing off a main character is a great way of breaking your reader’s assumptions and expectations (in the best sense). It’s a shocker that generates more interest, if done right!

    Like

    1. Yes, although I agree with previous commenters that it shouldn’t only be done for shock value. If the writer is good enough, he/she will make it seem like it’s the only possible outcome… And then, rather than wanting to throw the book across the room, the reader will be bawling his/her eyes out. 😀

      Like

  4. So why did Dumbledore die? Was it necessary, or just for shock value? Many of the adult figures who aided Harry died (Sirius Black, Dumbledore, Dobby, later Remus Lupin) so I guess you’d argue the deaths were necessary for Harry’s emotional growth, but I can think of easier ways to grow up.

    (Oh, and I’m intrigued by the set-up in the series you describe…)

    Like

    1. Yes, I think Dumbledore had to die because Harry had to stand alone without him — although that’s an authorial manipulation, rather than Dumbledore himself being in a situation where it was the thing that HAD to happen… maybe plotwise it was so Severus could prove himself to Voldemort? Dunno.

      Funny how this discussion seemed to end up about why kill characters at all!

      Like

I'd love to hear from you...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s