Let me state right up front … YES, your first-person narrator can die.
Your story is your story, after all, and you can make anything at all happen within the confines of those pages.
That said, whether you should kill your first-person narrator is another story. Before we dive into the particulars, though, a quick definition is in order.
What Is a First-Person Narrator?
OK, just to avoid making assumptions and to put us all in the same frame of mind, let’s first define what a first-person narrator is.
Every story has one “character” who relays the action, and they take one of three basic forms:
- First-person: The narrator is either part of the story or has intimate knowledge of it and tells the tale from his own point of view — “I ran away from the salty dog.”
- Second-person: The narrator speaks directly to you and folds you into the story — “But you didn’t get far before Jagged caught up and took a hunk out of your leg.”
- Third-person: The narrator is an observer of some sort — though not involved — and relays the story like a broadcast to people he doesn’t know — “Joe was afraid his leg would turn gangrenous, but he was more afraid that Jagged would tear his throat out first.”
So a first-person narrator is involved in the story in some way beyond just telling it. He is an actual character.
Doesn’t that mean that, if the narrator dies, the story just stops? Well, maybe, but that’s just one of the …
Ways for a First-Person Narrator to Die
Among the ways for a first-person narrator to die and for you to handle that death as an author are …
Narrator Dies, Book Ends: As mentioned above, you could write your story so that it ends when your narrator’s life does. Just be aware that it’s going to be jarring for you and your readers.
Narrator Dies After Book Ends: Another possibility is that you’re reading a memoir or notes from the narrator well after the timeframe of his life — maybe letters from the Civil War battlefield. In this case, the reader can assume that the narrator is already gone. Usually, but not always, this approach would require an external frame to help it along, such as a descendant finding the stack of letters in a dusty attic 150 years after the fact.
Narrator Tells Story as Ghost: Your narrator doesn’t necessarily have to be alive in order to tell his tale, especially if you’re dealing with supernatural subject matter. Imagine The Sixth Sense told in the first person, and you get the idea here. You could even mix the narrator’s voice — he’s alive and vital to begin and then after he dies, he continues his tale with an altered perspective.
Narrator Dies, New Narrator Takes Over: This device can work, but it is again jarring for your audience. The main choices here would be to revert to third person after your protagonist dies in order to play out the rest of your tale or to pick up the post-death action from another first-person perspective. One compelling option in this last category is to wrap up the story as your original narrator’s killer.
Narrator as Storyteller: This is another example of framing, wherein the narrator is reading or telling the main story but is inside his own overarching story. Think about a group of campers gathered around a fire telling ghost stories. The narrator might be one of the campers, telling a story. When he finishes, a noise sounds in the woods and he goes to investigate, relating the events in the first person. While searching for the source of the disturbance, he is killed. It’s a bit complicated but can work well when an element of the inner story somehow breaks free from its bonds and snuffs out the outer storyteller.
All of these methods have their problems, but they are all possibilities for killing your first-person narrator. Some are intriguing, but they all leave you vulnerable to negative consequences.
Consequences of Killing Your First-Person Narrator
The main consequence for killing off your first-person narrator is that you’ll annoy your audience.
Even if they see it coming, the change will be jarring. If the book just ends, for example, there will be no closure.
If you switch narrators or points of view, you might confuse your audience.
Beyond ticking off your readers, there are other complications with killing your narrator.
For instance, you’ll have to figure out how to wrap up the action before the death. You’re an author, so that’s the kind of thing you do anyway, but it won’t necessarily be easy.
You’ll also severely dampen any chance of writing a sequel if you snuff your main character. This generally applies in any case, but it’s even more of a concern if you knock out your narrator. Subsequent stories would then involve not only picking up the pieces after your protagonist is gone but also a dramatic change in point of view.
Not impossible, and maybe even fascinating, but certainly a steep climb.
Most of the time, you’ll want to avoid killing your first-person narrator, but ultimately you are the creator of your universe.
Kill whoever you want within the walls of that world. Just be prepared for the consequences.
(If you want to read more about killing a first-person narrator and read about the experiences of your fellow authors in this area, I encourage you to read the related posts from The Write Practices here and here.)
Have you killed off a first-person narrator? Tell me about it in the comments below.
Also published on Medium.