I Can't Kill My Darlings




I think it was about seven years ago or so that I was talking to a fellow writer about her work-in-progress. She was struggling with coming up with a pivotal point for one of her female characters, a point at which she is irrevocably changed never to be the same again. She wanted to make sure the change came not because of a new romance, as so often happens in the women's fiction genre, but because of something much more profound.


'Kill him,' I told her with restrained glee.


Instead of having her love-interest alter her with his love, I thought it would be much more interesting to have him change her with his absence, his death. She resisted, but not for very long. And in her next draft, he was killed. Only once it was done did I feel the guilt of a co-conspirator in a crime.


'Was it hard?' I asked, 'to kill a character? A main character?'


She said it was, and that she had cried while writing it.


'Well then,' I said, 'you know it's good.'


When the reviews came out, she got lots of complimentary comments on the emotional parts of the book describing the death of a beloved. And she got lots of criticism as well, of the kind that romance authors frequently get when they have the temerity to want to introduce some gritty reality in what many readers intend as an escape from a world all too full of gritty realities. I felt awful when she got the "bad" reviews for that reason, and wondered: could I kill a main character?


So far, the answer has been a resounding 'no'. I killed an infant once and people were torn up about it, but less so, I am convinced, than they would have been had I killed its mother. For years now, I've been struggling with this ... I want to explore loss in romance. Real loss, and not necessarily with the promise of a new, albeit inchoate love affair on the horizon. But I can't. I'm deathly afraid of trying. Not because I feel the need to give people an HEA. I only barely care about those to be honest. But I do love giving people hope at the end of my stories, the promise of something better to come.


But as someone who hollers about wanting to keep the "realism" in her work, the specter of a character's death still terrifies me. Despite death being as real as it gets. I can kill lots of darlings when I write: all those pet phrases and scenes and snippets of dialogue that make me feel clever ... With a little bit of a cringe, I can leave them on the cutting room floor if they contribute nothing to the story. But to kill the other darlings? Those lovely people who come to me as though fully formed? Nah. I can't kill them. At least not yet.

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