To Kill or Not to Kill Off Characters in YA

Posted by Katie L. Carroll on November 29, 2010 in Book Trailer, Books, Writing |
One thing I like about young adult books is that the authors aren’t afraid to kill off main characters. It’s not that I like it when fictional characters die (although I’ve gotta admit, I did give a little cheer when Renee Walker from 24 kicked the bucket…she was pretty freakin’ annoying!), I think it makes YA books more authentic, more unpredictable, and more suspenseful.

Let’s face it, in real life people die, and not just the ancillary ones (one of my pet peeves about movies is how dispensable the ancillary characters are…who cares when a character dies when you had absolutely no emotional attachment to him?). At some point in your life, someone you care about, and sometimes even love, will die. And really, any of us could die pretty much anytime. That’s life, and books should reflect that.

I get that fiction–whether it be books or movies or whatever–is supposed to be an escape, but I subscribe to the thought that a piece of work that stirs my emotions and surprises me is better than one where all things turn up roses. I’ll never forget when I first read the part in Little Women when Beth dies. It was terrible and heart-wrenching, but it was so good too because it’s real. It’s one of the things that keeps that book on the top of my favorite list.

Here’s the book trailers for three books I’ve read over the last year that deal with the possibility of the main character dying (don’t worry, I promise no spoilers below!).

If I Stay by Gayle Forman deals with the most fundamental question of all: Do I choose to live or die today? In a way, we all deal with this question each and every day of our lives, maybe not on the scale that Mia does or with the same stakes or while facing a tragedy, but it is still the most basic choice we face day in and day out.

In Before I Die by Jenny Downham, Tessa doesn’t have the choice to live or die; she’s terminal. Imagine having to complete your bucket list by the age of 16? The end of this book had me silently sobbing (and it takes a lot to make me cry) so hard that I scared my husband when he looked up from his laptop and saw my face. I had so many tears in my eyes, I couldn’t even read the words on the page.

Samantha dies right at the beginning of Before I Fall (yeah, pretty similar title to the previous book…there is theme going on here) by Lauren Oliver and gets seven chances to live her last day. An interesting thing about Samantha–and I found this to be true of Tessa too–is that she isn’t always likable. She was even cruel at times, but that made her all the more real.

I would definitely recommend all three of these books…just make sure you have a box of tissues nearby. What books or movies do you like where there’s a real chance the main character dies?

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  • Nautilus says:

    Mmmm, that's a thought-provoking post. And who knew you hardly cry? I cry when I hear a sad song on the radio!

    I remember wondering throughout The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood) and Misery (Stephen King) if the protagonists would die at the end of their stories. Knowing those authors, they sure could!

    For movies, I'm going to go with Armageddon, that chunk of disaster shlock from Michael Bay.


    Like you mentioned in your post, the death of ancillary characters is a big "so what", and plenty of these red shirts bite it during the movie. But when the main character dies, preceded by a quick-cut montage representing his last thoughts of his last moment of life, I found it quite moving and fitting. See, I thought they wouldn't have the guts to kill him off, even though the story plainly called for it, so I was glad that they did.

  • Katie L. Carroll (KT) says:

    Armageddon is a surprisingly enjoyable movie. With Michael Bay you expect the scenes where stuff blows up, but it did have a fairly developed emotional side too. Plus, it had some pretty funny dialogue too. The drillers list of demands is hilarious!

    Backdraft–that early 90's firefighting film–always tugs at my emotional strings.


    When the younger brother, played by William Baldwin, watches the older brother, played by Kurt Russell, die in the ambulance…ugh…I sometimes can't even watch that scene.

    Anything where the siblings die always gets me going. So many YA books have siblings that die…but that's a blog post for the future!

  • Nautilus says:

    Ooh, Backdraft! I forgot about that one…didn't it end with the surviving brother on the truck, tugging the rookie's helmet in a mirror scene of the earlier truck ride with his older brother?

    "Surprisingly enjoyable" is an apt description because I don't care for movies about stuff blowing up; I prefer movies about people blowing up.

    Putting characters in peril does amp the interest factor (example A: Lifetime with their "women in jep" genre) but it needs to be handled skillfully. Killing a character obviously can lead to great emotional richness, again only when handled well. I'd be interested to see a future post on how and why you think that's covered on the YA front.


  • Katie L. Carroll (KT) says:

    Yes, that is how Backdraft ended. Apparently, the firefighting done in that movie wasn't entirely accurate to real-world firefighting (this coming from an actual fireman), but I did find the emotional arc of the movie compelling.

    That would be interesting to do a post about how and why death is covered in YA literature. All these comments are good fodder for future posts.

    "Hootie!" I finally caught the first episode of the all-star season.

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