Killing Your Darlings

Among writers, the phrase “kill your darlings,” refers to editing away those parts of a document that don’t really belong, but to which you are attached. For example, those 22 pages of backstory that don’t really add anything to the plot, but which you included anyway because you’re proud of it? Yup, a darling, one that ought to be killed. A darling might actually be a character, or it could be a phrase, an idea, or even a spelling. I went through a phase of capitalizing words I considered spiritually important, like Sun and Moon. An editor explained why I should not do that and I acquiesced. Sigh. Darling killed.

Refusal to kill darlings is self-indulgent, and writers should never indulge themselves at the expense of their readers–or at the expense of the message or story they are trying to convey. You do that on your own time. When you show up for work, you’re a messenger, and you’ve got to get yourself out of the way.

One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever encountered was that writing is something like exploring and testing a structure, like a building, and that it is imperative to knock down any wall that you find does not actually support the structure–including those that originally seemed to be the point of the piece. So it’s not about denying your feelings as a writer, since you have to be able to feel when a detail has become unexpectedly important (or unexpectedly unimportant) to the story. It’s about jettisoning the self-indulgent.

But “kill your darlings” can mean something else, too.

Fiction writers, not infrequently, write about the deaths of their characters. And we like our characters, love them, sometimes. This is especially poignant when you consider that a lot of fiction writers consider our characters real. We argue with them, listen to them, take dictation from them…the objective reality of the situation is far from clear (are these beings fantasies? Alternate personalities? Ghosts? Faeries? Is their autonomy an illusion, or are they really real?), but the subjective sense is insistent; fiction is a collaborative effort between authors and their otherwise invisible friends.

To be clear, writing a death scene does not end the relationship. There’s still editing involved, after all, and maybe revisions or flashbacks to write. Even after a book is done, it’s sometimes possible to retain a connection with its protagonist. Writing a death scene does not cause the invisible friend to vanish. But it’s still hard. You write the thing and think maybe if I just wrote it differently. Or, if I don’t type these words, if I type different words, this person I care about can live longer. Happier. I am in charge. I could do this. Except you’re not in charge. Fiction writers are never in charge, not really. You have to be true to the story, as well as true to the people in it, and the story says this person dies here.

Fiction writing feels like observation, more than anything else. Changing the plot once it is established in your mind would feel dishonest. You’d think but that’s not what really happened.

I don’t tend to go easy on my character’s lives. Some writers do, at least for their protagonists. I mean, I used to kind of wish I were a Barbara Kingsolver character. Sure, they go through some difficult things, but they usually end up self-possessed and personally fulfilled by the end of the story, with a circle of loving friends. A really hot guy usually appears somewhere along the way. But I don’t envy my own characters.  I put them through too much. And sometimes I feel bad for that.

Many years ago, I noticed a line in a Don McLean song that triggered one of the most productive trains of thought I’ve ever had:

Weathered faces, lined in pain, are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand.

The artist in question was Vincent van Gogh, and the line recollects the painting, The Potato Eaters. But what jumped out at me was the verb, “soothed.” If painted faces are unhappy, how can the painter be said to have soothed them? After all, the act of painting is what put those pain-lines there to begin with. Wouldn’t a compassionate artist paint happy people?

Of course, the entire point of The Potato Eaters is that they aren’t happy. That is their truth, and van Vogh honored that truth in his painting. A painting about happy people eating potatoes would be a painting of different people. Turning those frowns upside down with a stroke of a brush would be an act of denial, not of kindness.

Is it possible, then, for an artist (or a writer) to enact compassion by creating a character in pain, and thereby witnessing and honoring the truth of that character?

In that case, I can say to my protagonists, I’m sorry you had to go through that. I’m sorry everything was so difficult for you. But you didn’t go through any of it alone. I was always there with you, watching, and all of it meant something. And when you come to die, I will still be with you, putting words to things, and caring about you.

Would I accept that, were I in his shoes?

I might. And I might be in his situation. I don’t know that I’m not somebody’s character, and that possibility is preferable to some others. It is an existence with meaning. Many people have described God as an artist, so that idea isn’t new or without merit.

If God is indeed a writer, then praying for a happier ending is pointless–the scenes we get are the ones the plot demands. Something bigger than us is at stake. No writer singles a favorite character out for better treatment at the expense of the plot. The flipside here is that pain and difficulty don’t have to cause anyone to feel abandoned or meaningless. You did nothing wrong, and God loves you just as you are. This is just the way the story goes.

But the issue of writing about a protagonist’s death is a bit different than writing about pain, because no matter how gentle I was with my characters, they would still die eventually–whether I wrote about it or not. I don’t typically write about immortal beings. I’m not deciding that my characters die, therefore. That’s a given. I’m deciding that when they die, they get to do it with my company, my witness. Wouldn’t that be a comfort? Isn’t that better? And yet to write about the death of a character I like is still difficult.

These scenes are difficult, but, curiously, not final. Right now, for example, I’m working on a short story (possibly a novella) that ends with the death of my protagonist, Andy. And yet, I’m simultaneously working on other stories in which that same character is very much alive. I can see his life as a whole in my mind, and I can focus on any point within that life that I want to. I can watch his birth (natural. Afterwards, his parents argued about whether to have him circumcised), his childhood (lonely, often frustrated, but stubborn), his adolescence (prescribed Ritalin for ADD, he saved and sold the pills and used the money to buy a mountain bike), or any other part of his life. The are all equally real. His death does not end him, except in the sense that an object, such as a pencil or a fork, has an end. One end of a pencil is pointy. The other one usually has an eraser.

Now, my non-fictional friend, Gary, died recently. I don’t know the circumstances of his birth. I know very few of the episodes of his life, only those which he has told me. Even if I did know him much more intimately than I do, his death would still rob me of further experience of his life, because I can’t experience the past as vividly as I experience the present. I have his letters, and shall keep them, but it does matter to me that I won’t get another letter from him. And yet, since the end of the fictional Andy does not invalidate or destroy his middle, and the end of a pencil does not invalidate or destroy the pencil, why should the end of Gary invalidate or destroy him? He exists only in the past, but he does exist.

Once you kill your darlings, the world starts looking different. And that’s a good thing.

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About Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.
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