#Secondthoughts: Kill Your Darlings

If you follow the writing community on Twitter, and indeed on other social media I expect, you will frequently see bits of advice done up nicely, almost like a little gem of a motivational poster.  Nice font, an appropriate pic, the whole shebang.  Some are new-spun, most are bon mot or bon juste extracted from the sayings of well-known names, some still alive, some no longer with us and some from quite a long time ago.

I’ve noticed that should you be so inclined, you could probably do a nice bit of meta-analysis and group such advice into a relatively small number of sets.  One of these is “Kill your darlings”, although this is probably an extreme version of “make them suffer”, the point is that you need to be prepared to be horrible to the characters you love, not just the ones that you think deserved to be offed.  This isn’t just a case of editing out a secondary character who just isn’t pulling their weight, oh no.  You might have to kill off a much-loved character…

“Make them suffer” is justified on the basis of making the character grow.  I don’t know how much Dickens actually liked Sidney Carton as a character, but he did “kill off his darling” in order to show how much the character had grown – “It is a far better thing I do now, than I have ever done before”…  But is making your character suffer, and even die, all that it sometimes seems to be?

Two thoughts before we continue.

  1. I watched Strike recently, the TV adaptation of the first two ‘Cormoran Strike’ novels by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling).  I guess I’ve broken the first rule by watching the adaptation before the book, but to be honest, whilst I love a detective novel, when I saw the brouhaha when the book was launched, I really couldn’t be bothered, not even with after seeing this summary.  I quite liked the show: the casting was brilliant, and the key actors brought a warmth and humanity to the whole thing which meant that I didn’t feel that I’d wasted my time watching it. But.  The whole thing was clichéd beyond the point of being ridiculous, and frequently made my teeth itch, which was a shame.  Cormoran Strike, in particular, is such a bundle of “let’s make his life difficult” ideas that it is no wonder that he drinks so much, and incredible that he ever gets anything done.  If an alternate turned up in a Jasper fforde novel, he would probably be there to take industrial action.
  2. Do things always need to grow to be worth reading about?  As an example, lets look at P.G. Wodehouse.  It’s difficult to find as much energy expended to return things to the status quo as you find in a P.G. Wodehouse story once the balance has been tipped, and yet the stories remain popular, to the point that they are almost imprinted on the collective consciousness.

As with most things to do with writing, at least part of the answer is probably to do with your audience.  Sticking with detective stories, sometimes you want something quite cerebral with an unexpected detective being brainy and pulling the strings, and sometimes you want roof-top chases.  Sometimes it’s all about an every-person blundering into things and sometimes it’s the trained detective doing it by the book and getting on with the job (albeit guided by their gut/nose/other part of the body as appropriate).  You could argue that Miss Marple goes through some kind of growth – she has to learn to accept the success of her nephew and the consequent financial support that he provides and she has to deal with her increasing fraility.

I suppose what I am trying to say is that death is a part of life, and we shouldn’t not talk about it – an unexpected character dying in an unexpected way should shock, but not be shocking, if you see what I mean.  But as writers, and indeed as readers, we should be open to other forms of shock, and other forms of growth.  People die every day – the “crude death rate” is currently under 1% (81 people in every 10000 per year) – but it doesn’t affect everyone, everyday.


© David Jesson, 2017

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