On killing your darlings

I’ve had two demonstrations of the phrase “kill your darlings” (William Faulkner, I believe) this week, so I want to talk about that. I think there’s two targets of the phrase; killing your writing, and killing your characters.

Killing your writing

I had a “kill your darlings” moment in Biscuits, from my wonderful editor friend. I’d added a lovely piece of description, and it was nice writing. But it wasn’t needed, at all, and so out it came.

It’s hard to do, I have to admit. It’s very hard to do. I’ve got files for almost every single piece of writing that I’ve done that contain odd sentences, paragraphs, even entire sections. It’s bits where I like the phrasing but it doesn’t fit; it’s plot that doesn’t quite work; it’s a lovely piece of writing that’s too lengthy or too boring or simply can’t stay. I keep the pieces in an effort to make it hurt less – and actually, I do sometimes go back to them. But taking out a piece of your work that you thought was good, and you like…ouch.

So: just do it. Your editor (whether yourself or someone else) needs to be ruthless. It may be lovely writing, but if it doesn’t work in the story – kill ’em all.

Killing your characters

I had a discussion last night with our GM for the Dresden Files RPG. He’s got his own character, and I’m stealing a casefile at some future point that’s intended to let this character play. And while we were discussing some of my plans, he commented that he was astonished that I wasn’t going all-out to kill the character – which possibly explains a lot about our friendship, or maybe just how we play the game…

I had two defences to that. One is that it suits the plot better to not try to kill the character; the entire casefile’s set up to give him a chance at something, after all, so why kill someone if you don’t need to? But the second reason hurt to realise: I don’t want to try to kill him. I like him. I’ve got a great deal of affection for the complete and utter bastard: he’s fun to write, he’s fun to play with, and I don’t want to wipe all of that out without a sensible reason. I did promptly get laughed at because the GM is quite happy for his character to die, whereas I’m the one having issues potentially killing him!

But killing characters is hard; killing your own characters is hard, and killing someone else’s has its own problems. You create them, you live them, and then you have to kill them off? That hurts. The way I see it (with my own writing at least) is that if I don’t want to kill them, but it fits the story – DO IT. You’ve got affection for the character, which means the reader does. Go for the gut-punch, go straight to the emotion. I re-read some of my old writing a few months back and I teared up when I killed someone – which then made me grin. I’d dun good!

So…kill your darlings. But only if you need to.