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The big write-off: When TV show creators drop main characters

TV drama writers are murderers. They have to be: No matter how successful their shows are, at some point, somebody's going to die — and they're going to make that happen. On "Downton Abbey" this season, two major characters died within just a few episodes of one another. "Homeland" killed off the vice president. And "The Walking Dead" kills major and minor characters on a regular basis — sometimes more than once (if they rise from the dead, you understand).

But don't think it's easy to kill, even in fiction. Wielding the pen like a sword takes a toll and is never done lightly.

"There's a tremendous amount of regret involved any time you kill someone off," says "Dead" creator Robert Kirkman. "They say 'kill your darlings,' and it's true. I'm bummed out we don't get to work with Jon Bernthal [Shane] anymore — and it's kind of crappy he's not around. But we don't regret telling that story."

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Liking an actor just isn't enough to keep him around; once the story has stepped up and indicated a character has reached his useful end, out he or she goes. "I won't keep a character alive just because I like the character, or the actor," says "Boardwalk Empire" show runner Terence Winter. "That's a deal we made with each other on 'The Sopranos.' You have to treat these people as fictional characters."

Not that some writers can't be swayed if they can find another way to tell the story. "The Following's" Kevin Williamson says he's had actors who "cried and begged for me to change my mind," and the pleas were answered. "If they're really happy and content and skipping to work every day, and you can think of an equally satisfying way to do what you want to do, perhaps you can avoid pulling the death card."

In the case of "Downton," however, losing Matthew and Sybil in the same season was foundation-shaking, and not entirely in the writers' hands. Executive producers Gareth Neame and Julian Fellowes knew from the start that Jessica Brown Findlay was only going to stay for three seasons, so Sybil's departure was a planned thing. Dan Stevens (Matthew), however, left his contract decision open until very late — and once he decided to leave, he wouldn't consider bridging the character into a fourth season even briefly.

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"As [Findlay] did not want to re-up her contract, we felt it was much stronger rocket fuel for the narrative if we had a death — and indeed that was so," says Neame. Stevens' "decision not to renew his contract put us in a dilemma, however."

"I wanted him to do one episode the following year so we could have had the final episode [of the third season] with them happy, with the baby in the crib and then kill him in the next episode [the fourth season opener], but he wouldn't even do that," says Fellowes. "I couldn't have the whole of the last episode about him dying."

But he didn't leave the door open for a possible return of Matthew. Most writers, in fact, eschew the notion of an ambiguous disappearance or demise. "I believe that death is death," says Williamson. "If you take away that very real stake, the show loses something."

Adds Winter, "I try to avoid that stuff, because people don't believe it. It's a cop-out."

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In the end, story prevails over all — and any character can be killed these days on dramas, including leads. "No one is safe," says Kirkman. "Rick is on the chopping block as much as anyone else."

So is "Homeland's" Brody (Damian Lewis), says Gansa, if the story dictates. Brody has already survived planned exits in Seasons 1 and 2. "We felt there was more story to tell between [Brody and Claire Danes' Carrie], and as long as we have room for scenes with them, he'll be around," he says. "But no one wants Damien Lewis as a peripheral character in the series — he's front and center when he's around. When that shelf life expires, we have to figure a way to have him depart. That will be an enormous discussion."

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