When writing a series (or even just a really long novel), at some point, the characters become known, their dynamics set, and readers can almost guess how characters will feel about a given plot twist before it happens. Fans go beyond love for characters and form deep connections… and expectations.
Some readers love to simply love their characters and enjoy their next adventure. But don’t discount the fun of “killing your darlings” to shake things up.
“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” —Stephen King
Yes, that’s right, kill them. Both Joss Whedon and George R. R. Martin have reputations for breaking their fans’ hearts by killing off key characters who should have been “safe.” But while fans are heartbroken, they also can’t seem to look away at the train wreck that ensues after these tragedies.
And your stories can earn this undivided attention too, if you’re gutsy enough. You may even find yourself enjoying the freedom of all this creative freedom.
Here’s how to do it:
Don’t kill your darlings without purpose
This is the first rule of the Darlings Kill Club. Chaotic action is just chaos, tearing yourself and your fans apart for no reason. When looking to shake things up, look for the things that will force other characters to do things they never would have before, expose new aspects of themselves, or otherwise change the core dynamics in your story.
Identify established patterns
A problem with long-running series is that their behavior patterns within the dynamics of your story become too familiar. Who can always be counted on to behave a certain way, or handle certain problems? What challenges would removing that reliability present to your other characters?
Off the fan favorite
This may seem particularly cruel—or even risky, if you fear fan backlash. But if you understand not only who the fan favorites are in your story but why, stirring the pot can create a great emotional hook and big-time drama in your story, because as your readers struggle to cope, so do your other characters. How will they get through it? Who will step in to fill the void?
Fans may love the dependability of your victim, but that dependability also keeps your story predictable. And predictable just isn’t as much fun as unpredictable.
… Or the author favorite
Or put otherwise, who do you think this story absolutely could not exist without? Go ahead, imagine what happens if that character disappears. Sometimes the loss of the central character is exactly what your story needs to refresh and shift into a new gear. Keeping the story tied to your own darling may actually be holding you back.
Some of the most devastating and compelling moments in stories come when a character is unexpectedly lost. At first, killing our darlings is hard because we love our work by necessity, and we bring assumptions with us into it. But once you start looking beyond your feelings and consider the possibilities, you may be surprised to find you’ve opened up an entirely new world of options.
Can your story benefit from killing your darlings?
Take fifteen minutes and consider your work in progress—what happens if you get rid of a central character? Brainstorm how this could develop the plot in new ways, and share in the comments!