Killing Your Darlings

No One Is Safe! (Photo Credit: cottonbro studio)

I WAS once asked if it was difficult to “kill one’s darlings.” Let’s look at this more broadly than just the mechanism of killing off a primary or popular character for plotline purposes (but I will get to that in a moment, not to worry). It takes courage and fortitude to cut storylines you’ve worked tirelessly on and edit out characters you believe add flavour and personality to your work. How can you think only some of what you’ve written is gold–it’s all great stuff! Maybe it is, but it’s likely not, and here’s the thing–not everything you write is essential for your story, anyway. And all of this is okay. Still, it is hard to accept, especially for new writers. I know it was for me. 

Recognizing that something is unnecessary, too long or derivative can be difficult because you initially think everything you write is best-selling stuff. The idea that something you’ve worked hard on should be removed because it doesn’t contribute to a tighter plotline or a more coherent narrative is a tough pill to swallow. The act of editing can feel discouraging and daunting, but it will eventually, sooner than later, trust me, begin to feel liberating, maybe even invigorating. Cuts are necessary to produce the cleanest, best work possible. Once you see the story’s plot flow more fluidly and the remaining characters’ personalities and poignancy are given more time and space to flourish, the discouragement will disappear. Remember, before discarding or deleting the remains of edited-out text, including dropped characters, see if anything can be reworked into the story another way. Cleaner. Or keep it around for use in a future project. You never know!

Why Them?! (Photo Credit: RODNAE Productions)

As far as orchestrating the demise of a beloved or entertaining character (or characters), I can’t speak for anyone else on this, but for me, it’s never been much of a problem. Regarding the villain, it can be a lot of fun to think of creative and exciting ways to off them so they get their just deserts. It’s amusing for a writer. But when you realize the death of a main character, like your protagonist, or even just a likeable one (who doesn’t deserve it), will create a better, more satisfying ending or plot twist, I can see how it would be difficult to “let go.” But writing is emotional, which means heartbreak and unfairness as much as justice and satisfaction are fair game. Even when a character wasn’t intended to perish in your story’s outline, but as you wrote further, their death becomes organically necessary or perhaps unexpectedly exciting, one does what must be done. The best story possible shouldn’t be derailed by personal character attachment. 

So in answer to whether it’s difficult to kill one’s darlings, yes, it can be. Okay, admittedly, it was a bit in the beginning for me with my first novel, Vindictive, but only because I wasn’t sure if I was killing the correct characters off or even if I was killing enough of them off. (How shocking!) With subsequent work, like Vindictive Too, I fully understood the necessity of not playing favourites or holding back. If the death of a character (any character!) will evolve my story into something more significant, satisfying, entertaining, and unexpected than “OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!” Of course, my mother has warned me that there’s a particular hunky character she’s grown very fond of whose death would make her VERY UPSET. I might need to consider this as I write the third book in the series. (Or not! HA!)



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