A Northwest Based Literary Journal

Kill Your Darlings, Not Your Characters

Story themes seem to come in waves, like currents in time. Lately it’s been of the sort I callously call “After the Funeral,[1]” in which someone, usually a loved one, has just died and the people left behind get to remember and self-analyze. ATF has become ever more frequent in our submission queue, even more common than old standards like cancer and Alzheimer’s.

The stories I get are remarkably similar: an opening scene that takes place close in time to a funeral, at which family members or once close friends have gathered to pay respects. Old animosities are dug up, revivified, and then typically laid to rest[2] as the characters realize life’s fragility.

I’m not a fan of this premise. Like those other literary tropes, its attraction for writers lies in sentimentality. When someone dies, especially a family member or friend, what option do readers have but to feel sorrow? This casts a pall upon the narrative that keeps it from exploring new literary terrain. The characters become constrained into narrow avenues that have little emotional latitude. The often predictable story arc seems also to be a 21st century version of the happily-ever-after ending of more naïve times. Since in modernity’s literary realism we are not allowed to have happy endings anymore, the simplistic appreciations of “life must go on” and “relationships matter” offer to take its place. I’m not knocking the message, by the way—those maxims are quite true. I’m only complaining that they’re so obvious they’re not worth pointing out. I much prefer fiction with moral complexity.

There are exceptions for every trope and premise, of course. An excellent example is the short story “For Non-Speakers of the Mother Tongue,” which appears in our new issue. Author Hilary Zaid uses the death of a father (which doesn’t happen until about halfway through, btw) as a release mechanism—the conflicts developed to that point are brought into sharp focus by the sudden event. Death becomes a real part of life, rather than a pretense.

In general, though, keep your characters alive; keep the conflict going and growing. One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from Kurt Vonnegut: “Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.” There’s no better way to make characters suffer than by keeping them alive. Death is far too easy—anyone can do it. Better to kill your darlings, those too-clever displays of writerly indulgence, than to kill your characters.

[1] Editing everyday does that to you.

[2] Puns intended, of course.

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Categorised in: Craft of Writing, Fiction