To Kill or Not to Kill Your Heroes

In our recent Academia discussion (, we asked whether the trend of killing of main characters in fiction was innovative or a voyeuristic fad. After all, many writers boast of killing off their heroes, notably George R.R. Martin, who has made an entire career of it, inspiring thousands of copycat authors to follow suit. On first blush, it seems like a refreshing, “think outside the box” literary idea: instead of knowing that your hero will somehow survive countless perils and death-defying scenarios, how much more exciting would it be to know that he or she might not?
 After so much predictable fair, particularly in genres such as fantasy or romance, this is relatively unexplored territory, and a great way to sell books: it was certainly the impetus of the 1993 “Death of Superman” storyline where the Man of Steel was finally slain by Doomsday...for an issue or two. Comics routinely kill off their main characters (temporarily) to deconstruct the myth of the superhero which by its very definition is timeless and immortal. After all, Superman has been fighting crime since the 30’s, a pulp character who transcended him moment in time to adapt to each new generation. If time couldn’t kill Superman, good luck to the writer or artist who thinks he/she is up for the job!

Of course, killing off main characters is nothing new, but neither is the hero who survives all the odds to win the day. So what separates the eternal hero from the all-too mortal one? Take two classic works of literature which in many ways set the standard for everything that followed: Homer’s The Odyssey and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the former, Odyssey and his crew are punished to sail the seas for ten years (after leaving the Trojan War) for blinding Poseidon’s son, the Cyclops Polyphemus. From there, he wanders from adventure to adventure, losing more and more of his crew (most of them “red shirts”) while narrowly escaping death himself. He finally finds his way back home and faces dozens of suitors who are attempting to woo his widow and seize her fortune. With only the help of his son, Telemachus, he slays the entire body in a pitched battle where neither father or son is even wounded. More on this in a moment...

In Hamlet, by comparison, Hamlet, prince of Denmark, is bent on revenge: his uncle killed his father and married his mother, and only Hamlet knows the truth. After various schemes to get his uncle to confess (or to catch him in the midst of his sin), Hamlet finally ends up killing half the court before finally running him through. By the play’s end, Hamlet is dying, his mother is dead, his uncle is dead, his girlfriend is dead, and so is her brother and father (did I miss anyone?). Shakespeare’s tragedy seems to break all the rules and dumps every character who we should care about—including the abused and innocent Ophelia—on the floorboards. Five acts of blood and treachery—and not a happy ending in sight!

Though these works were written over a thousand years apart, they both represent our shared literary heritage. Almost everyone has read these books even if they don’t know they have. The stories, characters, themes, and templates of these works have trickled down through imitation, inspiration, and allusion to virtually everything we read and write today. I would argue that every book, particularly in the realm of genre fiction, can be classified as Team Odyssey or Team Hamlet. The reason is that the book is either about a hero/heroine undertaking a mythic quest that ends in victory, OR the book is a slow burning revenge tragedy that ultimately implicates the hero/heroine in the original crime, killing him/her in the process. The Hero’s Journey or The Revenge Tragedy—the two basic templates of most modern fiction over the last thousand years.

Of course, we don’t copy works simply because they’re old or famous or taught in college. We imitate them for the important reason that they work—and continue to work even when the times changes and the modes of expression diversify. Take Hamlet: it’s part of a genre called the “revenge tragedy,” which largely began in Elizabethan England as a way of exposing the single-minded folly of revenge and the cost of human blood. These tragedies, which also include Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, are by equal turns cruel and comic. They thrust you into a world where conventional morals are topsy turvy, making it difficult to do the right thing or be honorable.

For example, Hamlet wants to be a good son and a good prince; but how to do that in a world where your uncle kills your father and becomes the de facto voice of honor and judgment? And even Hamlet’s own father demands (from the grave) that he bloody his hands, thus committing regicide—a very serious offense in any age. If someone shoots the president, can any reason or justification make it “right”? Killing, after all, merely pays back another death—which in turn precipitates even more murder. So where does it end?

For this reason, the reader knows that Hamlet has to die. If he managed to kill his uncle only to skip out of the play as the new king, something would remain “rotten in the state of Denmark.” The point of a revenge tragedy is illusion of honor in a world of revenge, and this is the same world we find in Martin’s novels or even many of the works of Steven King. When your point is to expose society’s flaws or the impossibility of being a hero, maybe your hero needs to die? Maybe all heroes need to die...for how could anyone be heroic who has to sacrifice their judgment on the altar of blood?

However, in the case of The Odyssey, being heroic isn’t up for debate. Heroism is steadfastness of purpose, inflexible resolve, and callous strength. While Odysseus is also out for revenge of sorts, it’s not against any one individual; instead, he’s merely trying to regain his place in the world, and the suitors, fittingly, are merely another obstacle in his path. Though there are a wealth of realistic, and even humanistic, details in the poem, The Odyssey is ultimately a work of myth and metaphor: we’re meant to emulate his example and undertake our own metaphorical voyages into the unknown. For this reason, we often talk about being between “Scylla and Charbydis,” which is another way of saying “between a rock and a hard place.” We’re not meant to see any of the characters as individuals, but as types and symbols: for that reason, neither Odysseus, his son, or his wife can die—they must live on to inspire us by their example. The suitors, however, can die by the hundreds, just like our own petty fears and desires.

So when answering the question, “should I kill off my heroes?,” consider which book you’re writing: Hamlet or The Odyssey? Are you trying to write a work which resonates with the power of myth...or are you trying to write a deeply personal tale of human conflict in the face of ideals and values? Answering this question can help you understand who needs to die, and who needs to gain immortality from book to book, even when they do die (for in fiction, anyone can be resurrected—just look at Sherlock Holmes!). The danger is that, intending to write The Odyssey, you suddenly revert to Hamlet. While that might seem like a clever thing to do, your reader will instinctively sense that the script has changed, and the characters, once demigods, have become cheap paper-mache substitutes.