Kill Your Darlings

Have you ever been reading a book, and a character dies, and you’re completely thrown out of the story? It’s happened to me more times than I can count, and it is the worst.

 

If you haven’t guessed by this point, this post is not about the old adage to trim down your novel by cutting words, characters, scenes, subplots, etc, though incidentally I’ve gotten pretty good at that. After talking about creating and developing strong characters, this post is about killing them. If you’ve missed any of the posts in this series on writing characters, you can go read about creating strong protagonists, antagonists, and side characters and about character development in general.

 

Fair warning, I will be using lots of examples in this post, so there will be some spoilers ahead, specifically from the Harry Potter books, the Hunger Games, the Lunar Chronicles, The Book Thief, Tamora Pierce’s Trickster books, and the Mortal Instruments. I will try to keep the spoilers to a minimum, where possible, but you have been warned, so read on at your own peril (but honestly, if you don’t know who dies in Harry Potter by this point, you deserve to be spoiled).

 

So let’s start with looking at some character deaths that drove me nuts.

 

First, Lupin, Tonks, and Colin Creevey. The climactic sequence of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a huge battle, so naturally people are going to die. Lots of people are going to die. I accept that. Among my writing buddies, I am personally known for killing whole bunches of characters ruthlessly. That is not my problem with some of the deaths at the end of Harry Potter. We’ve already lost Hedwig, Dobby, and Fred in this book alone. Oh, and by the way, Harry’s about to go sacrifice his own life. And then we find out, just by seeing their bodies, that Lupin, Tonks, and Colin Creevey are dead. I get that this is the cost of war. But we don’t see them die, and then their deaths pale in comparison to the idea of Harry’s sacrifice. Personally, this combination doesn’t work for me.

 

To give one more example of a death that doesn’t work for me, let’s look at the end of Mockingjay, when out of nowhere, Prim is in the middle of a war zone and gets blown up. I will admit that the movie did a much better job with this and cleared up a lot of the confusion about what happened (in the movie, it may in fact be something I accept), but in the book, it was not okay. First of all, Katniss volunteered for the Hunger Games in the first book in order to save Prim, and by killing Prim, it really makes you wonder, well what was the point of all of this? Furthermore, in the books, Prim is never developed as a character—she is always just an object for Katniss to protect. We are sad when she dies because Katniss is sad, but we are not forced to mourn her in her own right. Finally, though again I think the movie clears this up nicely, there is nothing gained by Prim’s death. She doesn’t save anyone or accomplish anything by dying, and we already very clearly have seen the cost of war *takes a minute to wail “Finnick!”*. And then Katniss votes for one more Hunger Games, for Prim, which invalidates everything even more.

 

These are just some examples of how a character death can fail. In these cases, and I’ve found in almost all cases when I’m annoyed by a character death, it’s because either the character wasn’t sufficiently developed (Prim) or because the character’s death was not given enough attention in the book (Lupin, Tonks, and Colin Creevey). For the record, I’d also like to say that I really don’t like it when the book ends with the main character dying, even if it’s a noble self-sacrifice. It is never okay with me.

 

There are plenty of examples of character deaths that work well for me, though, and I’d like to talk about why. First, look at Dumbledore. He is Harry’s mentor, so it’s kind of a given that he has to die at some point. In order for the hero to go off and kick butt, or at least to go camping for a year in search of butt to kick (I say this with love because I actually have no issues with the camping trip that is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), the mentor needs to get out of the way. Yet Dumbledore’s death works well because it is the culmination of a really dramatic scene. Harry and Dumbledore have stolen the Horcrux and made it back to Hogwarts. Dumbledore is sick, but Harry is confident he’ll be all right once he gets help. But then Snape, you awful person you, and oh yeah the Horcrux isn’t real. Plus, let’s not forget that there’s nothing like the drama of Dumbledore being blasted off the tallest tower. Finally, though we feel like we know enough about Dumbledore to mourn his death, there are also mysteries surrounding his death and also what he didn’t tell Harry in his life.

 

Next, think about one of the first deaths in The Lunar Chronicles series, Cinder’s younger stepsister Peony, who dies from the plague Cinder has discovered she is immune to. Peony isn’t Cinder’s mentor in any way, but she is the one person tying Cinder to her step-family. Though we haven’t spent much time with these characters yet, we already love Peony, not just because Cinder loves Peony but because we’ve gotten to know her ourselves. Finally, the sheer tragedy of it is just beautiful. Cinder is so, so close to saving her life, but she is just moments too late. I love it.

 

For similar reasons, I think all the deaths in Tamora Pierce’s books Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen work really well. We know the characters and we love the characters, their deaths push the plot and other characters forward, and with one exception, we see it all. Even the important death we don’t see on-screen is done really well, because we have to witness the other characters’ anxiety and grief while they wait for news. I also have no problem with everybody dying at the end of The Book Thief, though I know people who do, and in other World War II books with similar endings, I have been annoyed at the mass slaughter committed by the author to illustrate the tragedy of war.

 

I think how readers feel about character death can be so subjective. It depends on the reader and the book. Some of the situations that I described as not working for me might work for someone else, or might work better in a different book or different context. I prefer happy endings to tragic ones, or at least endings on the positive spectrum as far as endings go, but I recognize that not everyone shares this preference, and I have certainly been won over by books that don’t have happy endings. I’m not sure there are any hard and fast rules on how to effectively write a character death. I’ve killed a hundred characters in one move, and I’ve also killed an important character off-screen, though I can’t objectively say if any of those deaths work. There are all kinds of reasons for and ways to kill characters, whether because the character is a mentor or someone tying the protagonist down, or because the character’s life is part of the cost of war. Honestly, when I’m going into the last book in a series, I feel this awful and wonderful trepidation knowing that in some way, for the story to be significant, someone important has to die, but at the same time I don’t want anyone to die because I love them all so much. Of course, if it’s a long series, people have probably already died, so I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary for someone to die in the last book. Also, I’m definitely a fan of fates worse than death, such as Simon’s choice at the end of the Mortal Instruments series.

 

But while I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules on what makes a character death effective, I will say that for me it’s important that the character is sufficiently developed, that their death is given enough attention in the book, and that it is significant in some way to moving the plot and characters forward. I feel like it’s very similar to what I said a few days ago about developing your characters in general: people want to read about other people. Your characters lives should feel so real that your readers love them, cheer for them, and weep for them, and so should their deaths.

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Journey to an Ending

November has arrived, which means once again, National Novel Writing Month is upon us. Unfortunately, I can’t count law school application essays towards my word count, so I have decided not to attempt to write fifty thousand words this month. Instead, I have set myself a much more reasonable goal of writing four short stories. But in the spirit of NaNoWriMo, I have been playing with my basic concepts of stories that need revising and thinking a lot about how I plot my stories—short and long alike. Back in July, I wrote about how I outline stories, but now I really want to get into the meat of how I plot stories. And as I was planning this series of posts, I realized that I usually start with the ending.

 

I have no idea if this is how other people morph their idea stews into cohesive stories, but this is what I do. I start with a basic concept—a main character, possibly an antagonist but probably not yet, and the problem that main character is trying to overcome. Then, with this idea in mind, I jump straight to the ending. It’s sort of like I’m planning a trip. I can’t decide what route I’m going to take if I don’t know what the destination is. If I know the destination, I can plan the path I will take—where I will start, where things will probably get difficult, where I will pause to rest and use the bathroom and refuel my car and myself, where I will turn aside to get lost in the halls of cobwebby museums full of rare fossils that might give the whole trip meaning. Maybe this metaphor has gone too far. I can’t even drive. Yet.

 

My point is, before I set pen to paper or, in my case, fingers to keyboard, I need to know where I’m going. Many times, I don’t start a story until I have a last line in my head.

 

This isn’t to say that the ending I come up with when I am first planning a story will definitely be the ending I write when I get there. It could happen that I reach the ending and realize that I have been driving at something completely different all along. In that case, I revise my ending and do what’s right for the story. Other times I reach my ending and everything feels just right, and I write that ending, but then when I go back to revise the story, I realize that while the ending is right for the story I want to tell, the beginning or the middle or the character arc isn’t fitting in, and I need to revise that. So it doesn’t always work out the way I want it to, but that is the joy of storytelling: it is an act of discovering the story as much as transcribing it for others to read. But even if I change the ending, if I don’t start writing with an ending in mind, the story will inevitably be a mess.

 

So when I have my basic premise for the story, when I have my main character and my problem, how do I come up with an ending? And how do I know if that ending is the right ending for the story I am telling?

 

For starters, I have a running list of endings I have loved and endings I have hated in my head. When I’m trying to come up with the right ending, I start there. What kind of story do I think I’m telling? What books or TV shows or movies have I recently read or seen that might be similar to that type of story? How did they end? Did it work? Why? Did it flop? How come? What kind of ending can I come up with that will be better than what they did?

 

Obviously, this strategy can only take you so far. You need to be careful that you’re not copying endings from things you like or deliberately doing the opposite of something you didn’t like. For one thing, straight-up copying is bad. Most of the time, your story is actually pretty different from the material you’re drawing on for your inspiration, so copying their ending won’t fit. If your story isn’t different from the material you’re drawing on for inspiration, you have an entirely different problem. (Believe me—I’ve been there. Revise. Revise now.)

 

But I digress. Using a particular ending as a model—a baseline—is how I usually start. I look at how that ending was constructed, why it works the way it does—or why it doesn’t work—and I see if I can produce the same effect. Once I have analyzed other people’s endings to my heart’s content, I look back at my own story. In very simple terms, I think about the ending as the solution to the problem the main character is facing (this is different from the climax of the story, where the main character confronts the story’s main problem). Then I start brainstorming all the possible solutions to the problem, including the totally ridiculous solutions that could never actually work, the solutions where everyone dies (I don’t think I’ve ever gone with this one), and the solution where the main character walks away and leaves the problem unsolved—or gives in to the problem in some way. Usually this brainstorming is all in my head, but sometimes I write it out. When I can come up with no other possible solutions, I think about my story fundamentally. What do I want the tone to be? What do I want the main character to learn (if anything)? What is the story I am telling? I start crossing off endings that don’t work. Usually, I’m left with just a few possibilities, and I pick the one I like the best (I usually have a feeling by this point).

 

I don’t always use this whole process. Sometimes the ending I’m looking for is perfectly clear to me from the start. But when it isn’t, going through this process helps me clarify a lot about the story that I may not have thought about before, and ultimately, it’s a better story for it.

 

Finally, I want to talk about what kind of endings I personally like and what endings I hate. I will do my best to stay spoiler-free.

 

My biggest pet peeve about endings is when all the character has learned, all their growth and change, is invalidated. Think the ending of Mockingjay or How I Met Your Mother. Usually, this ending feels so far off the rails to me that it ruins how I feel about the whole book or season, sometimes even the whole series. I have been following these characters for so long at this point, and now they’re making a decision that makes everything that came before not matter. I feel cheated. I feel like I want to throw the book across the room. Often, there are aspects of the ending I would have been okay with on their own, but when it’s all put together, it just doesn’t work for me. I have a visceral reaction to these endings. At best, I’m disappointed. At worst, I feel like I’ve wasted my time.

 

Another ending I despise is the ending where either the protagonist dies or all the people around the protagonist die and the protagonist is left on her own in a wasteland of mindless destruction and grief. My one exception so far to this dislike is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and that’s because Death is the narrator, so I knew it had to happen at some point. Most of my dislike for this type of ending comes from the fact that I am fundamentally an optimist, and this depressing view of the world just doesn’t jive with my sunny outlook on life. I know, I know. I kill characters mercilessly in my own stories, and a lot of the time I enjoy a good character death. But only when that character death serves a purpose. When you kill everyone just to show that the world is rough, it doesn’t work for me. Also, as in another popular young adult dystopian trilogy, when you kill the main character for no good reason other than she’s nobly sacrificing herself for someone else I really couldn’t care less about, I feel like I’m wasting my time. Because I’m not reading the story for the interesting world. I’m reading the story for the character. And that was a dumb decision!

 

My favorite kind of ending, on the other hand, is like the ending of the TV show Leverage or Kristin Hannah’s book The Nightingale. It’s what I’m hoping the ending of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series will be (we’ll see tomorrow!). My favorite kind of ending brings all the pieces of the story together. It solves the problems of the plot in a satisfying way. It makes me feel like the characters have grown and changed in ways that matter. It is the sort of ending that makes me want to turn right back to the beginning of the book and read it all over again. It doesn’t have to be happy, and it doesn’t have to solve everything. In my favorite endings, there is at least one piece left for the reader to ponder, one more story for the reader to imagine. And while I always love a nice happy ending, my favorite endings are bittersweet. Because what is a happy ending worth—what is any journey worth—without struggles and losses that must be overcome along the way?