Killing my Darlings

swordOne “rule” you hear thrown around a lot in writing circles is “Murder your darlings.” Traditionally, this means those pet phrases and over-used words, the scenes you spent hours crafting but that don’t really add to the story. It’s a way of culling your fluff to tighten your story so it continues to move and not drag.

Sometimes, though, it’s used in reference to characters.

Because few things are more heart-wrenching than agonizing over the death of a beloved character.

Death is a natural part of life, and so exploring death in fiction is natural. There are countless ways to portray death in fiction, and countless reactions to it. Walking through something traumatic (or in some cases a relief or a joy or a necessary evil or whatever other emotions are experienced) with a character opens a reader’s eyes to new experiences and develops empathy, and can really draw a reader into the story in a unique way.

Some authors, however, take this to an extreme.

Yeah, I’m looking at you, George R. R. Martin.

And I realized that’s one of the things I dislike about the Game of Thrones series. While I enjoy the writing and the world and the realism, I really don’t like not having anyone to root for. I don’t like that literally everyone is fair game. Yes, fiction mirrors reality, and reality often isn’t fair. The good guys die. The bad guys win.

But fiction is also an escape. Fiction is a release. And while I want to experience the emotions of the character I’m reading, I want to have some rules. I want to know that however much it hurts to experience loss with the character, some things are off-limits. I don’t like that Game of Thrones has no main character to follow through the series, and that good never really triumphs over evil, that there’s no “happily ever after.”

Someone who read The Heir was upset by a particular character’s death. And I love that they were so attached to the character that the death caused an emotional reaction.

I murder my darlings frequently. Someone important dies in a lot of my stories. Someone that matters to the main character, someone whose loss is felt deeply.

But there are some things that are sacred. Some rules I can’t break, because otherwise the story isn’t satisfying.

And after all, isn’t that why we read?

About Avily Jerome

Avily Jerome is a writer and the editor of Havok Magazine. Her short stories have been published in various magazines, both print and digital. She has judged several writing contests and is a writing conference teacher and presenter. She writes speculative fiction, her ideas ranging from almost-real-world action/adventures to epic fantasies to supernatural thrillers.

7 comments on “Killing my Darlings

  1. Yes! Of course this isn’t really a rule. It’s advice. And I’m not convinced it’s good advice. On the Tiny Sense of Accomplishment podcast, Jess Walter said something like, if they’re your darlings because they’re good, you don’t cut them just because you love them.

    As for killing characters, when Will was reading Alara’s Call, he kept saying “I hope you don’t kill [one of the characters].” And I said I loved that he even thought there was a possibility I might. And he said “Well, you killed [a different character], so you might kill him, too.”

    • Yes, there’s definitely a balance between “unpredictable and anything can happen” and “I’ll never read another one of your books because there’s no one left I care about.”

  2. I don’t kill off beloved characters just for the sake of dramatic scenes or realistic representations of life. But some aspect of the character that profoundly affects how the rest of the story plays out is a game changer.
    That was the dilemma I faced with a current WIP. Had a certain character lived, the knowledge & skills he possessed would’ve rendered unnecessary everything that followed for his people generations later. None of the subsequent trials and victories they had would’ve happened
    Still, I mourned his demise. I had to keep tissues handy while I wrote.

  3. Others have blogged more cogently on Mr. Martin than I, but it all boils down to wordlview. You want someone to root for because you are a believer in Jesus Christ, the Ultimate Conquering Hero, and that colors what you write. You believe that there really IS such a thing as good and evil, and that good will ultimately triumph. Martin’s view of reality is colored by the glasses he wears (to quote the apologetics of Dr. Cornelius Van Til). Kindness, goodness, nobility, the triumph of good over evil are freak occurrences in Martin’s world. And no one to root for, either, since all are fair game. The statement made about all rulers are either eaters or on the menu, to paraphrase, is true in the world of GoT and, Martin believes, in “reality” — but any student of history knows that there were both good and evil rulers. Unlike Martin, your work reflects your worldview. You are the one grounded in God’s reality, which also means you’re not afraid to kill your darlings. Sometimes, good people die. You reflect that. That is true and biblical. And, yes, sometimes we must murder our darlings, to be real, to be true. It’s hard, both on the reader and upon us, God’s sub-creators. Thank you for helping us to remember that!

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