Tuesday, June 19, 2012

When to Murder Your Darlings

When to murder your darlings

One of the hardest aspects of writing - especially in the sci-fi/fantasy world - is deciding when to murder your darlings. George R.R. Martin's Eddard Stark is one of the most famous recent examples of an author killing off a major character. Until he was beheaded, Stark was the protagonist of his story. Most authors have a hard enough time killing their minor characters; after all, that's a small piece of us we're killing off.

But more important than our feelings is the dilemma of how. When do we kill our characters? Why? How? Which character do we kill. We don't want to turn off the reader, after all. But if the character you kill isn't likable and engaging, then the death itself is pointless.

Timing is Everything. Killing a character is easy. And then he died. That's all. The hard part is making a death count for something in your story. How does it affect our perception of the character? And how does a character's death shape and characterize the rest of your cast? You have to wait until a character has made a lasting impression on his environment, but when it still propels the action forward.

Death Means Something. Death is how we define life. Even if there is no heaven or afterlife, our perception having life defines our every action. Ever make a five year plan? Do you have goals you want to achieve in the next ten years? Over the course of your life? An unexpected death shatters all of that, and crystallizes everything we've actually done as everything we'll ever do. It changes the way we're seen by everybody who we've come into contact with. It's a jarring, serious, and sometimes catastrophic event. Treat it as such.

So Does Life. Death doesn't render life insignificant, not to the people who are still left alive. If anything, death is what lends life its importance. Death is the frame of life's portrait. It brings our lives into focus, centers us, and drives us. When you kill a character, be aware that you're casting his legacy in stone (posthumous revelations notwithstanding). We talk about our lives flashing before our eyes, but death does the same thing to the reader: it prompts an immediate review of the character's existence.

When One Door Closes, Another Opens. Killing a character places a void in your story, and you have to fill it. Don't just rely on what you have already. Use death as an opportunity to create something new, or to expand on an underdeveloped storyline.

Most of all, don't forget that death, in many ways, is the most significant event in our lives. It's our responsibility to treat it with the dignity and care it deserves - and then exploit it for the sake of entertainment!


  1. Great post! I killed off a character in my WIP, and I still go back and forth on whether I did the right thing. Undoing it, however, would change everything, so I'm hoping I made the right decision.

    You made some very valid points here. If you're going to kill off a character, better have a good reason for it, and get all you can out of it.

  2. Thanks for the feedback Christina, good luck with your story!