An oft-heard recommendation for writers-in-training is some variation of the macabre maxim, “you must kill all your little darlings.” It’s not a mandate for infanticide but rather advice to remove from your work those passages whose purpose is more to build your ego or impress others than to drive your plot or build your characters.
This dictum, which has been attributed to everyone from Faulkner to Stephen King*, is hard to obey. First of all, we love our clever turns of phrase and our precious metaphors. Writers tend to be an egocentric bunch (actually, nearly all human beings fit that bill) who want others to appreciate their genius (or mediocrity, as the case may be). Otherwise, why try to publish our work instead of just scribbling it out and reading it to ourselves?
I have a worse problem. I don’t even want to hurt my darlings.
In this instance I’m talking not about my prose but my characters. They’re like my children or my friends. How could I stand to let them suffer needlessly? Sure, a character has to go through crises and conflicts or they end up in a totally tedious tome. (Now that’s a little darling if ever I wrote one!) No one wants to read:
They started out happy.
A bunch of happy things happened.
They lived happily ever after.
Hopefully, no one wants to write it either. It’s OK for my darlings to go through the fire – we all must – but I need to redeem their trials so the journey is worthwhile.
This afflicts my reading as well as my writing. I’m one of those people who gets ridiculously wrapped up in the characters in a story. (To read more about my obsession, check out this post.) I can’t stand it when characters I’ve grown to care about don’t wind up in some positive state by the end of the tale. Do whatever you want with the jerks in the story, but leave my buds alone.
I prescribe to the Golden Rule of Writing: “Do unto your characters as you would have done unto you.”
Does that make for a boring book/movie/play? By no means. There are lots of (most, I’d judge) stories that have what some would call a happy ending. For some reason, though, it limits the critical reception since critics fawn all over Humpty-Dumpty-esque characters that self-destruct never to be put together again.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Austen, Dickens, and Tolkien (to name just a few) pulled it off somehow. There are worse examples to follow.
*Evidence indicates it was actually coined by a Cambridge lecturer named Arthur Quiller-Couch back in the 1910’s.