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.
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