Stephen King once said that to be a good writer, you must be willing to kill your darlings.
When I first heard that quote, I shuddered. I love my characters deeply—how could I possibly stomach killing any of them off in the story?
Their bright fictional futures lay before them—how can I snuff that out with a few keystrokes in Scrivener? Isn’t it just cruel?
Consider for a moment all the characters J.K. Rowling killed off (especially the ones we don’t forgive her for, like Sirius, Remus, Tonks, and Fred). Their fictional lives cut short to move the story forward.
And that last part is key: to move the story forward. Now, at the end of the Harry Potter books, those last three character deaths didn’t exactly move the story any more forward than it had gotten thus far. They were war casualties and not plot deaths.
Arthur Weasley was almost a plot death in the fifth book, Order of the Phoenix. Rowling changed her mind in the end.
But Sirius’s death was absolutely a plot death. It introduced a new level of grief, pain, and vengeance in Harry that helped motivate him to finish the war.
J.K. Rowling seemed perfectly willing to kill her darlings—including Ron Weasley (he too was almost a plot death like Arthur.)
At least we knew in Game of Thrones that no one was safe, even through the final episode. Now George R.R. Martin is a man who has no compunctions with killing his darlings. He just might have fun doing it!
I have several “main characters” that I love writing and love imagining in the scenes I write. Perhaps I could write experimental scenes that kill each one, but I find it hard to imagine that I could “permanently” kill off any of my main darlings like Rowling considered.
The way I see this principle of writing is this: we must, as authors, be willing to change the plot structure and character fates if we find that something isn’t working. If we need to motivate a character to take action, killing one of his or her companions is a great way to do it.
How does that character deal with death? Does it absolutely ruin them? Or does it spark a fire of anger and vengeance and push them through the difficult point in the book to reach a climax?
I sat down with my editor a few weeks ago not knowing which darlings she wanted me to kill. As it turns out, I don’t “have” to murder any of my characters, unless you count merging two or more characters into one character to save a lot of unnecessary words!
The biggest darling (which wasn’t really a darling) was how the plot unfolds. We’re flipping the book on its head and moving a really big scene from the ending up to the middle to help drive my main characters’ motivations.
I went into that meeting ready and willing to give up some favorites (whether they be scenes, characters, plot points, or structure) in order to weave the story into the best story it can possibly be—
And with four sequels planned… This first one’s gotta be a winner.