Killing Your Darlings

I’m not the first writer to use this phrase, nor will I be the last. In fact, it comes from the lectures of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, a professor, journalist and literary expert who used the term to describe removing fancy words and overblown description from your writing. But here I’m using it to talk about my own darlings, the characters I’ve created in the world of Ambeth.

I wrote a blog post some time ago about how it feels to dream a character to life, how they take on characteristics you may not expect, leading the story forward. But what happens when their story ends, when you (as the omnipotent writer) have to kill off one of your favourites for the sake of the narrative?

In the Ambeth series, I find I’m killing off at least one character per book. One I did not mind at all – a most unpleasant fellow, it was a pleasure to concoct a poetic justice for him, a deserved death. But there was another, a young man, who I mourned for weeks after he ‘died’ – I couldn’t read the section where he meets his end for quite some time as I found the whole thing too upsetting. Still do, to be honest. But there was no other ending for him, his death a pivotal moment that shaped much of what was to come in subsequent books. And there are others – some whose deaths I’ve written, others that I know are to come and it is a very strange feeling, that idea of their story ending. It’s as though whatever feeds their story through to me tapers off and I know there is no other way forward.

In life I avoid the types of films and TV that depict violence, murder and mayhem, guns and gore. Unless it’s fantasy, for some reason. Orcs and elves and vampires and superheroes, that sort of violence is OK, I guess. Strange, isn’t it? And yet here I find myself killing people off, writing their deaths. But I guess the key is that I also write their lives, their loves, their thoughts, give them as much of a chance to live as I can.

In a new book I’m working on, my main character dies in the first sentence. She is dead for pretty much the whole book. So that’s another way to look at it, I guess. I killed my darling before the story started, so it didn’t hurt so much.

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