Kill Your Darlings, Then Cry A River

Bruegel’s “Death”

We’re all well acquainted with the saying “Kill your darlings,” the mantra to never be precious about what we write. What does it mean when taken literally? What does it mean for those of us who are unlikely to ever take another human life in our every day existence, to kill on a page (and not just the expendables or the baddies). How does it affect us to be both creators and destroyers of the characters central to our narratives?

Killing In the Name Of

I’ve killed characters before. I don’t know my career body count; I think there is possibly something a little psychotic about knowing how many people you have killed (though it’s a fun tally to keep during NaNoWriMo, especially if Paul Anderson happens to be one of your writing partners!). I’ve never been especially enamoured with death, but it does have a habit of popping up in my stories (I think it’s a given when you write dark fiction): a teenage boy dead from an overdose in “Cocaine, My Sweet Heart”, a reclusive monk with his throat sliced open in an episode of Captain Juan, a woman dying after she contracted death from her best friend’s boyfriend in “I Saw Him Standing There” and the entire world in “Scarecrow Man”.

A bit like birth, death is sacred. As such I never use it to satisfy my impotent rage at the outside world. I also never use death as a means to propel a stale plot forward (one of the charges levelled against writers who kill characters on a regular basis). I never use death as an easy way out, though perhaps I use it as an easy way into a story.

But what if you really care about the character in the cross hairs? It is one thing to kill a character you find reprehensible, and another to kill a character who has a good heart, someone you are attached to, care deeply about.

Another One Bites the Dust

The novella I just finished pretty much ends with all the major characters dead, or with their life hanging in the balance, along with an entire township’s female population decimated by a weidergänger. It didn’t bother me as much as it should have. It creeped me out, especially writing certain scenes long after the rest of my household had gone to sleep, but it didn’t make me cry. I thought it would. My theory: the emotional investment was token at best because of the short time I spent with the characters in the lead up to the submission deadline.

That wasn’t the case in 2009 when I started the second half of a science fantasy novel with the knowledge the eon’s old sage Baji would die. It was a pivotal plot point. He felt his time coming to pass, but I struggled to be as zen about it? I knew (unlike the deaths in my novella) it would be a peaceful, but I my fingers refused to type his passing.

I wrote like he wasn’t going to die (good for a NaNo word count, crap for a story arc, pacing, tension). It was my denial (if you want to map it against Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s theory on grief). Then I got angry, and when I did Baji beat the crap out of his apprentice and almost killed him, in turn almost killing the story. I sent Baji to bargain with the Melissae for his life (which of course did no good, and was pointless because Baji was resolved to his death – it was just me who wasn’t!), and finally I fell in a big deep hole of not wanting to write (what Kübler-Ross would define as the depression phase).

In the end Baji died because I scheduled it on the calendar: Baji dies. I shit you not. That what I wrote in my diary. With tears in my eye, I assembled the Melissae and the apprentice and let Baji go. I’d never felt so tapped out, so drained, so utterly full of remorse. As soon as he was gone, I wanted him back. I felt gutted. Like the worst human ever.

Live or Let Die

On the 6th of next month I will have been writing Ella-Louise for eight months. This is the first time I have spent so much time in the headspace of a character. Her words, actions, feeling and thoughts (along with Jude’s) have an impact on me (and the songs my iPod appears to select on random play). They also have a massive impact on the small but dedicated group of readers who follow the serial.

Adam and I plan nothing ahead (other than what we individually stew and then sit on and later see what fits with the organic arc of the narrative). It is a collaboration where no actual collaboration exists – rather a shared space to meet in with our characters with a strict no spoilers policy. At some point though, it will end… the letters will stop being written, and a death of sorts will occur.

The idea of letting Ella-Louise go makes me nauseous, even though I know it will happen, probably around January next year. I think that, in tandem with the intense emotional atmosphere the project has created, has spurred me to wonder about her ending: what if it was less about writing the final chapter in a book and more about allocating a cemetery plot?

Could I actually do it–could I kill Ella-Louise or Jude or both of them? Could I let Adam do it? Would Adam let me? What would be the emotional fall out of it–it’s one thing to kill off your own characters, but what about characters two authors have invested in? And what would our readers do to us if we did?

Last Good-Bye

Matthew Reilly suffered a barrage of borderline hate mail and was accosted by unhappy fans at book signings when he killed off a favourite character in the fourth book of the Scarecrow series. Alan Baxter killed off a central character in MageSign and said the response wasn’t exactly positive either. It makes me wonder, are readers more forgiving of authors such as Audrey Niffenegger (the Time Traveller’s Wife) and Markus Zusak (The Book Thief) who foreshadow the deaths of the characters readers are poised to become emotionally invested in?

It takes a certain kind of guts to kill off a character you’ve breathed life into, especially if they are central to your story, and makes me wonder if in side stepping death, we’re sparing the reader the pain and anguish, or ourselves?

What has been your experience of death, dying and killing on your page?

This article first appeared on the Write Anything site 16th August 2012