Kill Your Darlings
Full Disclosure, this article is headed to the dark side.
You’re writing your little heart out, banging out chapter after chapter with the essence of your voice and style front and center. You came out of the writing gate, keyboard blazing, fingers on fire, thoughts smoking hot. Your opening line is slaying it. Starting in action grabs the reader’s attention and fingers crossed, they’re all in. Plot and subplots are on point. Conflict and stakes are kicking butt. The protagonist, sidekicks, and minor characters are speaking their truths or lies, (whatever your story warrants) with their own distinctive speech. Each, with well-defined mannerisms, quirks, and appearance. Story momentum is building. It’s reaching the climax zone. Whoo-hoo. You go, aspiring author!
Wait, something’s missing. It’s time for one of your darlings to bite the dust. Oh, yes, I did say that. Killing off one or more of your precious characters is popular writing advice first introduced by English writer, Arthur Quiller-Couch who said, “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — wholeheartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” The long-standing phrases encompass any part of your narrative not worth saving. Give up the good, go for the great, but for this article we focus on the murder-your-darlings part. Oy vey!
There are many ways to do-in characters and a few are contained in this article, but as an author you will want to accomplish one or more of the following: make death tug at the heartstrings of readers, leave readers feeling satisfied, create a sense of horror. Some deaths are necessary but oh, so hard to take while others are justified because the character was such a jerk or a nasty person. Other deaths are cringe-worthy and leave readers with an OMG reaction. Don't throw your book across the room. Lean into the scene and learn.
You can write death scenes down and dirty, grisly, drawn-out, sacrificial, dignified. Characters can get slaughtered in battle, slain by the villain while protecting others, meet death as a result of their mistakes, a big fat ego, or arrogance, or your beloved darling may lose their life to murder or suicide. Told ya this article was doom and gloom.
Choose the right moment for character death. Make it count and have it make sense. Don’t include it simply for shock value, or because you think as a writer it’s a must-have. The death needs to fit into your storyline and plot. It’s your novel, your story, so write it the way you see fit with death of a character as an added option. You may elect to begin with doing away with a minor character or a few of them. If your story is part of a planned series, the possibility grows for the killing off of major characters, though of course, slaying them sooner is your call. You are the author.
Think about how the death of a character impacts other characters and include that in your story. Does the death change other characters? Is that change for better or worse? Perhaps a character’s demise makes the protagonist or other major characters more determined, or maybe it stops them in their tracks. Will death weigh on the protagonist’s mind, causing them to shut down? Is there a lesson buried in the death for the protagonist, another major character, or the reader? Get that point across without spelling it out directly. Use symbolism, descriptions, sensory details, colors, and action. Embrace what drives your protagonist and other characters toward their choices after the death and write about it by showing instead of telling.
LET’S BREAK IT DOWN
You may or may not be familiar with these infamous death scenes. If not, you may wish to add these books to you TBR (to be read) pile.
Joffrey Baratheon — A Storm of Swords, the third of seven planned novels in A Song of Ice and Fire, a fantasy series by American author George R. R. Martin — is poisoned by wine at his own wedding and up until that point was still tormenting his uncle, Tyrion Lannister, a dwarf. An insufferable character such as Joffrey Baratheon is sure to satisfy readers when he is killed off.
Peter Baelish — a character in the above series A Song of Ice and Fire hasn’t died in the books, (and we don’t yet know if he will) but his his death is too good to pass up as an example of satisfying poetic justice. In both the books and series, he is portrayed as a devious, lying, and sneaky narcissist who would do anything to advance his own agenda, and that includes manipulating Sansa Stark, Arya’s sister, who slits his throat in the HBO series Game of Thrones. Though violent to behold, his death is gratifying.
Bob Ewell’s death in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, is another example of a fitting character death that appeases readers. This character is a violent, racist, ignorant man who tries to harm Atticus Finch’s children with a knife. He ends up falling on his own murder weapon and dies.
Beth March, in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, dies in the arms of Marmee, her mother, years after contracting scarlet fever. Beth is depicted as selfless, caring, and devoted, therefore her death is hard to take.
Travis Coates, the main protagonist of Old Yeller by Fred Gipson, is forced to put down his beloved dog who has become rabid. If this is not a gut-wrenching portrait of heartbreak, I don’t know what is. Many find the death of beloved animals harder to take than the death of humans.
Hedwig, Harry Potter’s adored owl becomes collateral damage, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling. Hedwig is hit by the killing curse from a Death Eater, when the Order of the Phoenix attempts to bring Harry Potter to safety. Readers feel the agonizing sorrow along with Harry as they too have grown to love Hedwig.
Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) is fitting because of its injustice. Tom is a black man accused of raping a white girl. Although he is innocent, he is convicted by a racist jury. Tom is shot and killed while attempting to escape from prison.
Heartbreaking and Satisfying
The death of Severus Snape, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows illustrates heartbreak and satisfaction, well, at least at first. Professor Snape, a villain who later turns out to be a hero in the last book of the HP series, is killed by Voldemort’s snake Nagini. The scene is heart wrenching because of the manner of death, yet readers can find satisfaction that he will no longer torment Harry. When readers find out that Snape was a hero all along, his death becomes tragic.
Many of George RR Martin’s characters in A Song of Ice and Fire series have died in the most hideous and shocking ways possible.
Ramsay Bolton is eaten by dogs, Ned stark is beheaded with his own sword on Joffrey Baratheon’s orders, Lysa Arryn is pushed out the Moon Door of the Eyrie by the one man she loved most, Catelyn Stark’s throat is slit at the Red Wedding, Quentyn Martell is flambéed by a dragon, and on and on the death toll rises.
Slaughtered in Battle
Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway is struck down in battle.
Théodred Prince of Rohan in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings The Two Towers, is slain by an Orc and mortally wounded in the battle between the men of Rohan and the Orcs from Isengard.
Death as a Result of Mistakes and/or Ego
Viserys Targaryen in A Game of Thrones Book 1 in George RR Martin’s series, is killed by Khal Drogo. Tired of Viserys’s impudence and arrogance, Drogo melts his gold medallions and pours the burning liquid over Viserys' head. I'd venture to say Targaryen's mistake was huge.
Willy Loman, in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, is an insecure, self-deluded traveling salesman who believes in easy success and wealth. This thinking, paired with the reality of his life, causes him to unravel and he eventually commits suicide.
There’s always the old switcheroo where a character dies, but is brought back to life, is thought to be dead, but is actually transported to another time, past or future, another realm, or another dimension, or comes back to life in a different form.
Harry Potter, in book 7, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling, dies at the wand of Voldemort with the Avada Kedavra, but he could not kill Harry completely – just the part of Voldemort's soul that remained in Harry as a Horcrux. So, technically, a part of Harry does die, but it's the part of him that made him connected to Voldemort. Lily's (Harry’s mother) love for Harry created a counter 'curse' known as Sacrificial Protection and saved Harry.
Gandalf the Grey in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings collapses into darkness after fighting the Balrog and dies. He is subsequently healed by Elvin magic and returns to life as Gandalf the White.
Bella Swan, the protagonist in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series dies during childbirth, but Edward Cullen brings her back to life with his vampire venom. She becomes a vampire too, but at least she still exists.
The point is, killing your darlings makes for interesting reading and is another way to keep readers engaged and turning pages. So, figure out who dies, when they die, and how they die, and don't forget the wrap-up about the impact of that death when the dust settles.