Jim Hines talks about killing characters in books, especially beloved characters and protagonists. You can see the discussion on his main website or follow a much larger conversation (by a factor of ten or more) on his LiveJournal.
I posted a comment there (my LJ handle is burger_eater, for those not reading this post there) but wanted to expand a little: When it comes to killing characters in violent stories–and many fantasies rely on fighting for their conflict–there’s a wide spectrum between the slasher flicks at one end (where everyone dies) and the A-Team (where a whole armory-worth of bullets are fired but no one is ever hit).
Where readers fall on or within those extremes depends on the type of book they’re reading, their mood at the moment, or whether the wind is southerly. That’s natural. But I was astonished by the number of people who said they felt “betrayed” by the death of a major character.
Personal (and spoiler-free) story: When [Major Character] was killed in the first book of A Song Of Ice And Fire, I was startled and grateful. It was a real Joe Bob Briggs moment*, thank you muchly, and it showed me just how much danger these characters were in.
Contrast that with the end of that Tad Williams tree-killer epic, where ten or twelve characters rush into a headlong fight with Big Evil but only one minor character loses his life.
If the reader is ready for it–if they’re willing to go along–it’s powerful and fun. If the reader is not ready for it, either because a book has too much killing or not enough, they feel manipulated.
Of course, no one story will satisfy everyone, but I sure would like to work out the fat spot on the bell curve.
* Joe Bob Briggs number one rule for a great horror movie: “Anybody can die at any moment.”