The Characters Who Break Our Hearts

by Barbara Kyle

A recent fascinating post by Lois Winston on
this blog asked: “
Are there
characters that you wish the author would kill off? Or characters you wish an
author hadn’t killed off?”


I thought
I’d dig deeper into Lois’s topic with another question:
character’s death broke your heart?


I once asked that
of my Facebook friends and the replies were extraordinary. People recall with
vivid clarity how a fictional death left them feeling bereft.


Beth March in Little Women. Sydney
Carton in 
A Tale of Two CitiesNed Stark in A Game of Thrones.
Charlotte, the valiant spider in 
Charlotte’s Web.


Pic: “Sydney Carton” painting by Ralph Bruce

Characters’ deaths that broke
my heart include Mariko in James Clavell’s 
Shogun, Robbie and Cecilia in Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Gus in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome


                                  Pic: Yoko Shimada as “Mariko” in the 1980 TV series “Shogun.”


That affecting experience as a reader applies
with equal force to an author. Every time I’ve killed a beloved character in
one of my books, I wept. The poet Robert Frost said it eloquently: “No
tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” I must be shaken by a
character’s death myself if I am to render it faithfully to my readers.

Three kinds of characters’ deaths shatter us the

1. The Innocent Friend

The most dangerous relationship a character can
have is being the best friend of the hero. If the hero has been reluctant to
accept his destiny, or his responsibilities, the death of his friend is often the
turning point that galvanizes him to take the next steps and the necessary
risks. By his friend’s death the hero is changed, made stronger, grows up.

2. The Victim of a Wicked World
When we shudder at Fantine’s death in Victor
Les Miserables we
shudder at the hellish poverty that killed her. In 
Atonement Robbie and Cecelia lose their lives pitifully in
the gruesome grind of war. In
 A Game of Thrones Ned Stark is executed in a naked political power

3. The Self-Sacrificing Hero
When Mariko, the courageous noblewomen in Shogun, goes to Osaka Castle to obtain the release of
innocent hostages, she knows she is going to her death. She sacrifices her life
to save Lord Toranaga from his enemies, and restore peace.

In A Tale of Two Cities, Sydney Carton takes his awe-inspiring walk to the
guillotine with selfless resolve, sacrificing his life so that Lucie, the woman
he loves, can be reunited with her husband.

These are deaths of valor – to me the most
poignant of all – in which the character accepts death as the price of
saving someone they love. That’s powerful stuff. What reader is not moved to
ask in admiration: Could I do the same?


And, speaking of killing . . . 


I hope you’ll enjoy my new
video: “What Makes a Killer Mystery? in which I
outline the essential elements of the genre and show interviews with five
acclaimed mystery writers, including Denise Mina and John LeCarré (below). 
Watch the video here.





Barbara Kyle is the author of the bestselling
Thornleigh Saga series of historical novels and of
acclaimed thrillers. Her latest novel of suspense is The Man from Spirit Creek. Over half a million
copies of her books have been sold.
Barbara has taught
hundreds of writers in her online Masterclasses and many have become
award-winning authors.
Visit Barbara at 


8 replies
  1. Donnell Ann Bell
    Donnell Ann Bell says:

    Barbara, what a powerful blog. I absolutely loved your Youtube video and will definitely be checking out these authors, starting with Sujata Massey. Best wishes on your mystery, I'm a proud owner of The Man from Spirit Creek — now for an additional eight hours in the day! Thank you.

  2. Barbara Kyle
    Barbara Kyle says:

    Thanks for your very kind words, Donnell. So glad you enjoyed the video, and my novel. And, yes, I think you'll love Sujata Massey's mysteries set in 1920s India. Cheers!

  3. Saralyn
    Saralyn says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this blogpost. Emotion is at the heart of a mystery/thriller, whether it's dealing with the death of a character or with the danger of chasing a killer. As always, your analysis is spot-on, and I'm soaking in your wisdom.

  4. Kathleen Kaska
    Kathleen Kaska says:

    I read Lois's blog and it got me to thinking, but I haven't YET killed a reoccurring character. I love the video about the difference between a thriller and mystery. And I will check out your list!

    • Barbara Kyle
      Barbara Kyle says:

      I'm glad you enjoyed the video, Kathleen, and I'm sure you'll enjoy the books mentioned. Cheers!

Comments are closed.