Kill Your Darlings

So…I didn’t end up completing NaNoWriMo. Again. And let’s be honest–I didn’t really try. I finished my third pass of revisions by November 10th or so, but sometimes a body just gets SO EXHAUSTED that it’s like getting the flu. Everything shuts down, emotionally and physically, and you can barely get out of bed. The worst part is, we somehow have to find a way to let our bodies do this, and heal.

Thank the Water Gods for Netflix.

I love watching full seasons of TV shows at a time. They’re fun and pass the time…but it’s difficult to see ten of them and not have the writer brain consider dialogue, pacing, and plot structure. This month, I’ve learned quite a bit from two shows: How I Met Your Mother and Grey’s Anatomy.

HIMYM is, at its heart, just a really fun show. But if one considers everything those writers cram into 22 minutes, it’s nothing short of brilliant. Recursive plot lines and comedy, all while moving forward (slowly) the central basis of the very long story Older Ted is telling his children. In 22 minutes, every piece of dialogue has a purpose.

So should our novels.

Grey’s Anatomy is a 43 minute show, which gives them a lot more time for relationships and Long Looks With Puppy Dog Eyes. It is difficult (if nigh impossible) to pull off The Long Look in novels. As authors we default to describing what we believe the character is thinking at that moment. While watching the show, this is something we are forced to infer from the actor’s microexpressions. (Or lack thereof.)

GA also invoked what many people think of as The Whedon Rule: At some point during the episode, someone will die. It’s possibly going to be out of left field, and more than likely going to be a character with whom you are incredibly sympathetic. Even if you’re NOT emotionally connected to this character, sometimes the death itself makes you love the character even more.

It’s a bit of a game, when the show starts, attempting to deduce who’s going to kick the bucket so everyone else can live. There are no guarantees the rest of the cast will arrive at the end of the episode unharmed, but it’s a safer bet.

I’ve never liked killing off my characters. It’s not really something that was ever done in fairy tales, and when it did happen, those folks tended to have some sort of influence beyond the grave. (No matter the retelling, Cinderella’s story doesn’t work without the absence of her mother.)

These days, your audience will not believe you unless you are more brutal and “realistic” with your characters. This means that people have to get hurt–physically and emotionally–through the course of your novel, and in many cases, someone unexpected has to die.

This means we, as authors, have to off one of the characters we’ve poured our heart and soul into. And that SUCKS.

Why do you think The Whedon Rule is now all but required in today’s fiction?

Have you ever had to kill off a character, felt that you should, or wished that you hadn’t?

7 thoughts on “Kill Your Darlings

  1. Alethea,
    Luckily I write sweet (and a little sarcastic) contemporary teen fiction, so I’ve never had to kill off a cheerleader. Yet. 🙂
    However, I did have to kill off a few characters in a YA mystery/urban legend story. And I regret now that I didn’t develop those characters better. I’m revising it now, but I think I didn’t do it because I didn’t want to get too attached only to kill them off. It made me feel a bit like I personally murdered them. LOL.
    My daughter Kaitlin gets very attached to the characters in books. I’ll walk into her room, and tears will be streaming down her cheeks, and I’ll think, “Oh. Finnick just died.” LOL. She was the same way with Freak the Mighty, The Lacemaker and the Princess, Harry Potter…the list goes on and on. But, when she’s crying and saying, “Why? Why do they make you love them so much and then kill them off?” I’m reminded that sometimes that’s what it takes to pull the reader in.
    But, if anyone has a YA book that doesn’t have a favorite character die, can you please let me know? Kaitlin could use a break with the tissues. LOL.

  2. The Whedon Rule – I LOVE that!

    I think that in today’s technological society–with almost instant access to unlimited information, books, TV shows, etc. at your convenience–that people demand something that grabs and holds their attention or they will move on to something that does. People are also less sensitized to violence today than in many past generations because you see it everyday. It’s on the news, in the papers, and a popular theme in action movies. So, in order to draw and hold an audience I think authors, movie and TV writers have to give their audience something that they can latch onto that creates an emotional connection to their characters, bringing them back for more. But I hate it. It always breaks my heart to kill of a character that I love, even if it is a necessary to drive the story forward.

  3. Hi Lee, thanks for the Saturday post! I would certainly expect someone to be kicking the bucking in any episode of GA, since that’s what those doctors are hired to prevent. And we all know they can’t stop every single patient from dying, and this isn’t Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. How the Joss Whedon Rule would apply to any and every single kind of story that can be written seems unrealistic. I say, pick your battles, and write the story you were meant to write. And teaching to the test does not make a better student.

  4. Real life does not make great fiction. So we do things in our books that we’d never do in real life and wish other people would avoid doing, as well. Like killing off a character (or several).

    We’re wired to be fascinated by conflict. It’s the engine that pulls our stories forward. Internal, external, whatever. In fiction, if someone isn’t fighting or tortured or dying, physically or spiritually, we lose interest.

    But I agree with Susan – you don’t always have to kill off a favored character. As long as you make them suffer before they get redeemed, we’re satisfied as readers. And the bigger the battle they have to fight to live, to succeed, to win the hand of the fair maiden, etc., the better the story. Ho hum, routine days make for ho hum stories.

  5. Love me some HIMYM!!!

    Speaking of killing off characters in a really clever way – watch Lost and The Walking Dead. All main characters are game in both shows and you just never know. That’s why I love them!

  6. As long as a character gets some sort of happy ending or growth or revelation before they die I’m generally okay with it. I wrote something once where the main character died. I wish I could re-write it so that didn’t happen but then it wouldn’t be her story.

  7. I’ve never seen GA, but I love HIMYM. I think you are absolutely right about the Whedon rule. Even if there is not a literal death, there has to be something that feels life-or-death important to the character. And I think we writers get a lot of joy out of tormenting our characters. I remember Kerri-Mermaid making fun of me once because I said something like, “I introduced the best friend — and then I killed her!” 🙂

Comments are closed.