Kill Your Hero? - Complications Ensue
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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Q. Is it a bad idea to kill your protagonist? This morning I had one of those moments that come to you when you're writing…things are humming along and then you write something and realize that you can go somewhere else entirely.

Anyways, my moment involved possibly killing my protaganist right near the end of the story. There's a twist following the climax, and just when everything seems resolved the protaganist is fed to the wolves by a character he thought was on his side. This character gets away…the credits roll…basically I'm afraid the audience has too much at stake with the protaganist and will be pissed off if he dies. But at the same time I think the twist could be good enough to satisfy them.
This is really a gut check question. Are you in the right genre? Does it make it a more satisfying story? Does it deliver the goods on the concept? Have you set this up throughout the movie so that it is a surprising but inevitable ending? Then go for it.

I think the key thing with a surprise downer ending is it has to be, somehow, not a true surprise. It can't come out of nowhere. It has to be set up emotionally. The hero has a death wish. The hero is getting away with something that we know, deep down, he can't really get away with. Or shouldn't. There have been intimations of death all along. The resolution of the movie is really about what the hero accomplished, not whether he survives. The hero is a bad bad man and we really want him dead.

The posters for a certain Mel Gibson movie say, "Every man dies; not every man really lives." So you know going in that the odds aren't good for Mr. William Wallace.

In a horror movie I saw a few years ago, the heroine loses her child in the opening. She never really gets over that. In one version of the ending (the European one, of course), she doesn't make it out alive because dying (and being reunited with her dead daughter) is a better result for her than going on living.

In a long-running HBO series, the main character (arguably) winds up dead in the finale. But he's talked about it and he lives in a world where it's normal.

You shouldn't end on a twist for the sake of a twist. But if you can surprise us, yet leave us with a feeling afterwards that this was the natural conclusion of the story -- then go for it.

(Incidentally, if you are pitching your movie out loud before you write it, then this question will answer itself. When you tell your listener that the hero's dead, do they go, "Cool!" or "WTF???")

NOTE: The comments are rife with SPOILERS, since it's impossible to talk about surprise endings otherwise!

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13 Comments:

Simple test -- if he doesn't die, does it feel like you've cheated to achieve that?

Heroes can die if it's the price they have to pay to change the world. You don't feel robbed when Spartacus or El Cid don't make it. But I'd hate the movie if Ripley didn't.

By Blogger Stephen Gallagher, at 11:49 AM  

I think Carlito's Way is a good example.

By Blogger Trellick Tower, at 11:57 AM  

Layer Cake is a good example of the gratuitous downer. I thought it took satisfying little crime/action flick on a turn to the pointless.

By Blogger Emily, at 1:46 PM  

SPOILER ALERT FOR AFOREMENTIONED HBO SERIES

Is the long-running series The Wire? I hope it's not Sopranos, because I haven't gotten through the series yet.

By Blogger Morley, at 2:02 PM  

**SPOILER ALERT**

A few movies come to mind where this works to lesser or greater extent. In Saving Private Ryan, what makes Capt. Miller's death acceptable is that the goal (saving Ryan) is still achieved. If all the American died in some fiery cinematic fuck you to the audience, then I believe the film would have been reviled.

Reservoir Dogs, however, left me cold, possibly because everyone is killed making the story IMO unnecessarily nihilistic. I guess one could argue that UC Mr. Orange's goal is achieved -- the criminal gang is stopped and its leader, Big Joe, is killed. But Mr. Pink gets away with the loot.

In Pan's Labyrinth, Ofelia's martyr's death is very "Catholic" in that through death she is resurrected, so to speak: she is escapes the cruelty of the physical world and is reunited with her true family in a fantastical hereafter (her real goal). Her sacrifice also saves her baby brother.

By Blogger daveed, at 2:48 PM  

Interesting take on The Descent. I didn't feel the original ending was better for the character, but rather that it was more powerful/shocking for the audience.

By Blogger Olli Sulopuisto, at 4:34 PM  

That's Sir William Wallace. Not that the movie had any greater connection to reality.

By Blogger Iain Coleman, at 6:08 PM  

It works in EASY RIDER.

By Blogger Lisa, at 7:27 AM  

As Daveed said, achieving the goal goes a long way, which makes Clive Owen's self-sacrifice in Children of Men a fitting, non-bummer end.

And then there's No Country for Old Men. Has there ever been another movie that kills its hero off screen?

By Blogger Patrick, at 1:16 PM  

WHen watching Thelma & Louise, did anyone really think they would get away in the end? It made dense to the story and theme for them to die at the end.

Thrillers seem to kill off their hero at a higher rate, but there are a lot of bad thrillers. I remember seeing quite a few where the hero is killed at the end, but none are memorable enough to give a specific example. I think that probably says a lot right there.

By Blogger Tim W., at 12:29 PM  

Actually, in Saving Private Ryan, even if Private Ryan had been killed, it would still have been okay, because, as was said in the dialog, that keeping the bridge out of German hands was more important than any one soldier. On the other hand, even if Ryan had been saved, but Cpt. Miller still died, but the bridge was lost to German forces, then it would have felt like a cheat.

By Blogger Hugo Fuchs, at 7:16 PM  

I agree with Stephen about Ripley...but I actually adored the ending of Layer Cake. Craig's character was such a clever swaggering bastard...but he was struck down in a dumb random way. I thought that was the point.

Jimmy Cagney always died..Top of the world, Ma!

By Blogger Philip Palmer, at 5:04 AM  

Speaking of a surprise ending...
What did you think of THE MIST?

I know it's not literally about the hero being killed but it went a step further in a sense.

It went so much further than the average 'European ending', it was almost unbearably dark yet it made so much sense to me.

For a movie that had almost set itself up to be pulp, it was a very smart twist to my taste.

(and one that the readers of the original Stephen King didn't see coming, apparently)

By Blogger Karel, at 3:17 PM  

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