When A Character’s Story Ends

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Killing your darlings.

I’m certainly 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 (slight spoiler alert) that 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 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 tend to avoid 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 my most recent completed novel, the 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.

36 thoughts on “When A Character’s Story Ends

  1. I know how you feel. I unexpectedly killed off one of my main characters in book2. I hadn’t intended it, but she sacrificed herself for the story. She was a character who had lived in my head since I was about 16, and I was sad to see her go. Shes not in my head any more either. Gone but not forgotten.

    1. Oh, that’s so sad, Ali! I can totally relate to her not being in your head any longer as well – it’s what happens, isn’t it, when their story is over? It was the same with my guy – I looked at it every which way but that was how his story ended, difficult as it was to write. I send writer commiserations your way 🙂 x

  2. Same here. I just killed a major character at the end of book 2. I knew from long ago that it was going to happen, but it still isn’t easy when the time comes.
    Now killing a major character in the first sentence – that’s original!

    1. Ha ha, thanks Deborah 🙂
      And Desprite Measures is on my to read pile – intriguing to hear you’re killing someone off in Book 2. I agree, it’s so hard to do, even when you know you have to, that they have no more story to tell.

      1. 😀 Nice to hear that, thanks.
        The Book 2 I’ve just written is sequel to my epic fantasy, The Prince’s Man, though I do have a death scheduled in the second sprite novel, when I get around to writing it.
        I draw the line at killing as many characters as GRR Martin, but the odd one is definitely necessary 😉

      2. He just loves to – I heard him speak last year and he was joking about how you can’t have a good wedding without lots of deaths. Grim – that suits him well.

      3. I was lucky – the World Fantasy Convention was over here in the UK (London) and they had the most wonderful speakers, also including Robin Hobb, another favourite of mine. Mr Martin is a most entertaining speaker, I’d certainly listen to him again, given the opportunity.

      4. Oh, I’m in the UK too, but I am so out of touch and miss things whenever they are on. I think I am now subscribed to the Fantasy Convention site, so hopefully won’t miss out next year. A friend was working on a Scottish festival where George R. Martin was speaking, and she said he was very entertaining. I need to get out more, obviously! 🙂

  3. I’ve yet to kill anyone in my books, at least not anyone who was “alive” (to me or the reader). It’s just never come up. It might eventually, though.
    I’m with you on the avoidance of violence unless it’s fantasy. I was even like that as a kid – the gruesomeness of the Grimm’s fairy tales didn’t bother me at all, even though I was super-sensitive to any other violence or pain. Something to contemplate sometime…

    1. Yes, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, or the original Hans Christian Anderson tales – all gory stuff. Fantasy is fine – perhaps that’s why I enjoyed Deadpool so much. Though I confess to putting a cushion over my face sometimes when watching Game of Thrones – that’s even a bit too much for me at times.

  4. I quite enjoy killing off my characters, but probably because they only appear in short stories. Maybe for short story writers it’s different? Am I cruel if I tell you that I smile when I kill them off?
    I’m quite nice really, Helen. 😀

    1. I’m quite sure you are, Hugh 🙂
      And there have been characters I’ve enjoyed killing off, but some have broken my heart. However, that’s how their story ends and so I feel I have a responsibility to write them that way.
      Although, come to think of it, I kill people in pretty much all of my short stories, so far. Hmmm. Maybe the short format means we don’t get as attached?

  5. A few of my characters die, too. Most are older and died of natural causes—all bar one. I still don’t know if I should do what I’ve done to him—I guess my readers will let me know what they think. :/

      1. He was sacrificed, really. I think his ending makes sense, but I can’t say too much without giving it away. I’m meeting with the first beta-reader who’s finished my novel on Monday, so she’ll let me know what she thought of it, no doubt. (She emailed that she loved my story, and last night I read out her email to my husband. ‘I don’t know whether to believe her or not,’ I said. He just shook his head. ‘Maybe it’s actually good?’ he said. But I don’t want to get my hopes up…)

      1. Thank you. I remembered you’d said before that you’d read it, but circumstances change and I knew you’d been unwell, so I didn’t want to presume. I’m meeting the first beta reader tomorrow, and I’ll make the changes she suggests, then I’ll send it on. It will be lovely to get your perspective, so thank you!

      2. Yay! Thank you. Yes, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do much with it these past few weeks, but I’m feeling much more myself now. Excited for you and your meeting with your beta reader – I’m sure it will be a very positive thing xx

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