Thursday, December 2, 2010

Killing Your Darlings

Whenever I write a first draft, my main character is totally selfish. It’s all about him, him, him (since I tend to write about boys). Oh sure, he has friends, family, maybe even a love interest. But in that first draft, my MC thinks solely of himself and his problems. But in that second draft, secondary characters have to steal a little thunder, and the layering begins.

As I work through that second draft, I begin to listen more to what the secondary characters have to say. They’ve got goals to fill and problems to solve, too. Sometimes the MC knows about them, sometime he doesn’t. But they always affect the emotional arc of the story. Each important character should touch the MC in a meaningful way.

In that delirious first draft rush, I sometimes create characters that must be killed off in the second draft. They really aren’t needed to tell the story. But why did that first draft mindset kick them into the story at all? While I never regret deleting a character, I do often take their main character trait and add a dash of it to another character. Maybe the character wasn’t necessary, but something about her was.

I’m currently working on a YA and I’ve killed off a number of darlings. The original idea for the novel began with a kid working his first job. As I revise, the job is still there, but is not as important as it was originally. So I’ve killed off a number of customers. The creepy customer plot thread is completely gone. But the boss absorbed a bit of the creepiness. The eccentric old lady kicked the bucket. But the girlfriend now has a grandmother with some eccentric qualities. And Dad? Well, he was in a lot of scenes in draft number one. In draft number two, I shipped him off to Italy.

We’ve all had a hard time killing a darling or two. So tell me, for whom do you still pine? Have you killed off a character that you swear will rise from the ashes of your computer and morph into a new manuscript? Have you written anything with a saved darling?


  1. Funny story: My brother was visiting when I got a response from an editor about an early chapter book. One of the editor's comments was I perhaps didn't need a character named Mrs. Poppy.
    I did kill her off and the next week my brother sent me an ornate sympathy card for Mrs. Poppy's demise.

  2. I'm impressed by your courage to kill characters! It's not something I do very often, and I probably should. There's a frog-like alien in an MG that I've been revising for ages. I really need to get rid of her for the sake of the story, but I'm trying to figure out a way not to. I'm too attached!

  3. Oh, Gale! Poor Mrs. Poppy!

    MG --a frog-like alien just may need a story of her own. A transplant may be in order!

  4. I just killed off a character in my YA also. I gave some of his more insightful lines to my male main character.

    I've also cut close to 1,500 words - those of you who know my writing know - my repetitions, my purple-tinges, my narrative explanations.

    It all makes the story better, but it's not easy.

    Gale, Love the sympathy card story!

  5. Meg -- can't wait to see who you killed off! And cutting -- I can never be finished cutting.

  6. I offed my MC's best friend. I still miss her, but my MC seems to have no recollection that she ever existed. Some friend she is!

  7. Judy, as always awesome post.

    I don't think I've ever killed off a character, but I've had characters from other novels become so dominant that I had to give them a novel of their own. I guess killing them off in one way, but reincarnating them into someone else.

    My current WIP's male mc was a bit character in another novel I have since abandoned. As I was writing, he just kept getting bigger and bigger and I remember thinking - I didn't mean for him to be this important...but I kinda sorta fell in love with him. So there it is. He's now in the middle of his own story, the way I guess he wanted it to begin with...writing is such a curious thing!!

    And Gale...that is so funny. RIP Mrs. Poppy.

  8. Oh, JL -- those selfish MCs. Don't even think about their long lost friends.

    And Robin, I can't wait to read you work from the male POV. After getting to know your secondary boys, I'm sure he'll be most interesting! And one who keeps calling to you. Hmmmm.