What it Means to Kill Your Darlings
February is for lovers. With Valentine's Day on everyone's mind it is only natural to be thinking about your darling.
What if I told you to kill your darlings?
In the interest of avoiding a lawsuit, no I'm not advocating that you kill anyone for real. "Kill Your Darlings" is a phrase used by writers usually referenced in editing. It means to kill your best passages of prose if they don't fit the story even if you really love them.
In the interest of this post it's going to mean killing your best characters.
Ever since George RR Martin became an infamous serial killer of beloved fictional characters, other authors have tried to emulate him. Where many fall short in this endeavor is in not realizing it takes just as much finesse to kill a character as it does to create them.
What makes a story intriguing? Good plot, good description, and good characters. When I say good, I mean well-developed, interesting characters with many layers that jump off the page at you. To achieve this takes studying people and their idiosyncrasies. Once these characters are built up, and your reader has invested time with them, then you can drop the axe!
But death, like sex, should move the plot forward in some way. You should never just throw it in to rack up the body count. It should have shock and awe. Going back to Martin, one of his most infamous death scenes is now referred to as The Red Wedding. In this scene Martin kills multiple characters, some very integral to the main plot.
This approach left fans of the series reeling, but compelled to continue the journey to see what happens next.
One of the other impactful deaths came early on and set the tone for the series. When Ned Stark, patriarch to the Stark clan, loses his head you know immediately this was going to be a gritty journey through Westeros.
Death doesn't always have to be bloody. We've read and seen countless times where someone dies of disease. Entire movies and novels have been based around this thesis. Its an exploration into humanity and how we face challenges. One of the more haunting portrayals of death by cancer was on Baywatch...yes, THAT Baywatch. Sometimes the show had emotional moments built around their characters that really did tear at the heart strings. For instance, when Mitch's girlfriend Tracy died of cancer I dare you to find a dry eye in the house!
Let's look at another example of killing off characters. In The Magicians novel trilogy the main character Quinten Coldwater is your hero throughout the books. You follow his journey as he discovers that magic and his childhood fantasy land are real. In the end, Quinten finds his happy ending with his girlfriend Alice.
The television adaptation took a different approach. Anytime you go from page to screen you have to expect different choices will be made. However, one of the decisions showrunners made for the TV show was to kill off Quinten. He did not get his happy ending, in fact Alice actually watches him die right in front of her eyes.
This decision was met with mixed reviews. Fans of both the books and the show were up in arms and demanding Quinten come back. Other characters have died on the show and managed to return, most notably Alice herself whom Quinten spent an entire season trying to resurrect.
However, when Alice tries to do the same for Quinten at the start of season 5 viewers are met with what I call the "cop out" of having a younger version of the character appear so the others can attain closure and the show can move on.
So why did the show decide to kill their darling? Choosing to axe your lead can either be a meticulously planned assault from the start or in the words of The Magicians showrunners they decided to "take a risk." That's a pretty big risk especially when the actor isn't the one asking to leave. To me it sounds like they ran out of ideas and wanted to introduce some shock value. I wouldn't recommend this type of approach in your writing. Gratuitous sex, violence, and death without rhyme or reason can paint you in a corner.
It also really takes away from the original story being told. Even though the books and the series are two different entities the essence of both were the same until the show veered off course. The novels showcase the end battle as a fight that Alice takes on, not Quinten. He was never meant to be the chosen one, she was. And even though the show gave Alice her rightful sacrifice they also took away from it by choosing to pain Quinten as the martyr instead. This really went against the story that author Lev Grossman was trying to tell with his novels and from all accounts on interviews he's given he hasn't sounded very happy with the change.
That's because as authors our characters are written a specific way and their deaths have meaning to us.
When Ned died, for example it was the catalyst for the tone of Game of Thrones. You quickly realized it was not Ned's story as others stepped to the front with their own journey in both books and screen.
For The Magicians you were introduced to Quinten as the character to follow through this journey. Now that he's gone only one other person can be identified as someone who viewers have gone on this trek with since the beginning, and that's Julia Wicker who wasn't a big part of the novel series. The rest of the characters will develop in the wake of mourning but you've lost your anchor character.
A better option would've been to sacrifice Julia and have Quinten deal with the angst of the loss. There is a lot more to unpack in that scenario than lifting your main character out for good.
It reminds me of when the original Beverly Hills 902010 lost both Brandon and Brenda Walsh. They were the characters that introduced viewers into this world and now they both stepped out of the picture leaving the side characters to take the lead. At that point, the story just doesn't feel the same anymore. Imagine no Harry in Harry Potter! it doesn't work.
Being a fantasy show, The Magicians can always bring the character back if they really want to but in most stories they don't always have that luxury. Also, is it worth the blow-back you'll receive once you kill a beloved character?
If the answer is yes, that their death is essential to move the plot forward or the ripple effect will enhance the other characters than go forth. But know that you may lose a portion of your audience at least for some time.
Just remember there's consequences to murder even when that character is fictional.