Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Writing Wednesdays: Killing Your Darlings. Literally.

We've all heard the expression "kill your darlings." It's a common writing trope, along with "write what you know" and "show, don't tell." Frankly, I'm not big on these sorts of generalities. If we all wrote what we know, fantasy would simply cease to exist as a genre (unless all fantasy authors are insane and they ARE writing what they know, in which case the world just became a far more frightening place). To "kill your darlings" means to get rid of the parts of your writing you love the most, because they're probably not nearly as good as you think. The expression has been attributed to Faulkner, although supposedly it originated with the author Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. Whoever coined it, the phrase has stuck. And there is no one who has taken it more literally than George R. R. Martin.

In this case, I'm not talking about the writing itself. I'm talking about characters. In the A Song of Ice and Fire series, Mr. Martin kills off one of his main characters in the very first book, A Game of Thrones. Since I saw the HBO series first, I wasn't as shocked when Lord Eddard Stark gets his head lopped off in front of his own children.

But midway through the third book in the series, A Storm of Swords, two characters who have been a part of the series from the very beginning are killed off in one fell swoop. I didn't see it coming. At all. I'd just spent thousands of pages getting to know these characters, and within the span of a few paragraphs, they were obliterated. Just like that. I couldn't sleep afterward. I thought a third character was also dead and I HAD to skip ahead to make sure she was alive, because my nerves just couldn't take losing three characters in one night.

I'm told it takes a lot for a writer to delete a scene they love. I don't really have that problem, because I never really fall in love with any of my scenes (I just don't have that high of an opinion of my writing). I might have a line I think is funny that I don't want to get rid of, so I'll try to find room for it somewhere else, but if an editor or agent tells me something needs to go, it's gone. But characters? That's a whole other bucket of coleslaw, my friends. My characters I love. I wouldn't have created them if I didn't. And to spend so much time developing them (literally around 2,000 pages by this point in the series) only to stick a sword through their heart or have their throat slit, is simply unfathomable to me. Bad guys are a different story, of course. But we're not talking about bad guys. We're talking about good guys, people the reader has come to care about, even if their chapters are a little boring. I don't know how Martin does it. I give him props for being so brave, but at the same time, as a reader I'm kind of miffed. With four more books in the series, I'm left wondering if ANY of the characters will be alive at the end.

As I work through what I hope is my final round of revisions on my WIP, I've had to get rid of a couple of characters in order to condense the story. They were minor characters, but even still, it has been difficult. Characters have a way of taking on a life of their own. Once created, they do things even you didn't see coming. In some ways, getting rid of a character is like killing them off. We'll never know where their story might have gone if things had worked out differently. For now, I just have to mourn their loss and move on. Besides, you never know when they might pop up again in the future.

So what about you? Have you had to kill any of your darlings yet? Please share in the comments!


Jenny S. Morris said...

I haven't gotten rid a character thus far, but I do plan on getting rid of one in the future and each time I write one of their lines I get a little sad.

Oh and I am dying a little inside. WHO, WHO, WHO did you get rid of? At this point deleting them would be like killing them for me. :'(

Mara Rae said...

Haha, well no one is gone entirely yet. But Evan is just a background character now - no physical description even - and some of the other minor characters might get the ax. And lycus probably won't be making an appearance either. But don't worry, Friday and the immortals are safe!

Carrie Butler said...

"We'll never know where their story might have gone if things had worked out differently."

Too true! Killing my darlings, kills me a little... but it's a necessary evil. *Sigh*

Cacy said...

I decided to take the "write what you know thing" as "write what genre you know."

As far as killing characters, I've had to work backwards knowing from early stages that certain characters are going to die, but having to fully develop them anyway.