Thursday, September 25, 2014

Killing Our Darlings

Writers use this phrase when thinking about pieces of prose of which they feel particularly proud, but that end up red pencilled/deleted/on the cutting room floor.  I suppose editors are the culprits of this for authors who write alone; Stan and I have each other to do it.  But I guess all writers develop a sense of suspicion when they read a piece they've written that really appeals to them.  So why the problem?  Why do we kill our darlings?  Probably other writers have their own reasons (or fulminations), but we have come to the conclusion that it’s because when the reader gets to one of these pieces, he or she hears the writer instead of the story.  That “fictional dream” is no longer carrying the reader along.  The reaction may be, “That’s clever!” (at best) or “Hey?” (at worst), but either way the reader is outside the story and that can’t be good.  The reader is there to hear the story, not to hear the author.

But what made me think about this phrase was something quite different.  I’ve just finished the latest thriller by one of South Africa’s accomplished writers – Amanda Coetzee.  Her protagonist is of the Travellers (gipsies), has the nickname Badger, and has had a hard road to become a man and then a detective.  She kindly sent me a copy of her latest book ONE SHOT – number four in the Badger series.  Initially, I have to admit I was a little disappointed.  The story moved along well enough, but Badger seemed to have become settled in a comfort zone, somehow a bit more ordinary than I remembered him.  Just when she’d lulled me into that false sense of security, Amanda killed one of her darlings – a rich character, built up through the whole series and absolutely core to Badger’s being.  I had to read it twice.  You can’t do that! I thought.  You can’t kill …  Somehow she would be rescued at the last moment.  Somehow she would be revived.  She wasn’t.  Suddenly Badger was thrown not only out of his comfort zone, but into free fall.  Now his priorities were very different from those of the police.  The book came brilliantly alive.

So clearly one needs this to impact on one’s main character, but I think there is more to it.  It's a shot across the bows of the reader.  “Don’t get complacent.  Don't think that all ends happily ever after.  That may not be the case.  It isn’t in the real word either.”   

Kent Krueger spoke about this at a workshop for mystery writers in Minneapolis.  In the novel where Cork O'Connor’s wife is kidnapped, he contrived an ending where she was rescued, but he didn’t like it.  It didn’t feel true.  So he, too, killed one of his darlings.  And he, too, found a changed protagonist to discover in his next book.  “Cork is safe,” he told us.  “He’s my bread and butter.  But everyone else is at risk.”  And the tension is higher as a result.  (Even Conan Doyle couldn’t kill off Holmes although he tried.)
Why, I wonder, isn’t it enough that good and nice people are murdered in mysteries?  Why doesn’t that tragedy grab and incense the reader?  Well, the answer is really obvious.  The reader doesn’t care about those people.  The reader cares about the protagonist and the people close to him or her, the people who have become friends over the book or over several books. Caring is an emotional reaction, not an intellectual one.  Why would we care about fictional characters being murdered anyway?  It’s hard enough to feel the deaths of real people we don’t know.

Our next Kubu mystery is titled DEATH IN THE FAMILY.

Michael - Thursday


  1. Any other writers killed off a character because they started to annoy the author by not doing what they were told? I mean, my fingers on the keyboard, my rules!

  2. I once heard told that far worse than killing off your protagonist is having that numero uno wed.

    No letters please. I'm just the messenger.

  3. Oooh... to end that post with that last line... chilling.

  4. For my part, I love it when my characters start disobeying me. that's when the story gets really interesting to me.