Kill Your Darlings

By Lois Winston 

Most writers are familiar with the phrase, “Kill your darlings.” It’s been widely attributed to William Faulkner but actually comes from a Cambridge University lecture given by English writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch about a century ago when he advised, “Murder your darlings.”


However, neither Faulkner nor Quiller-Couch was talking about the characters that populate a novel. They were referring to the need to be ruthless when it comes to eliminating anything that we may personally love in our writing but which has no reason for being in our stories.


Quiller-Couch’s full quote is, “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”


One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received is that everything in a book, whether narrative action, internalization, or dialog, must do one of two thingseither advance the plot or tell the reader something she needs to know about the point of view character at that moment. In other words, rid your stories of filler.


However, the same is not necessarily true of the characters who populate our stories. Yes, as mystery authors we need dead bodies. Otherwise, there would be little need for our sleuths to figure out whodunit unless our mystery is about who stole the cookies from the cookie jar. And we all know the answer to that—Cookie Monster.


I have a friend who loves my Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries, with one exception. She absolutely hates (with a passion bordering on obsession) Anastasia’s communist mother-in-law Lucille. She has begged me on numerous occasions to kill her off or barring that, ship her off to Russia. Lucille is like fingernails on a blackboard to this friend.


Yet, Lucille is the character many of my readers love to hate. Yes, she’s irritating, but along with providing both tension and comic relief in my series, she also provides me with some much-needed catharsis. You see, Lucille is based on my relationship with my own (now deceased) communist mother-in-law.


Hey, write what you know, right? So as much as my friend would prefer otherwise, Lucille will be hanging around for as long as I keep writing about Anastasia. Besides, you never know how readers will react to an author killing off an ongoing character. I remember the backlash when Elizabeth George killed off a beloved character several years ago. Now, I doubt any of my readers would classify Lucille as a beloved character, but as I’ve already stated, she is the character many love to hate.


Are there characters you’ve come across that you wish the author would kill off? What about characters you wish an author hadn’t killed off?



USA Today and Amazon bestselling and award-winning author Lois Winston writes mystery, romance, romantic suspense, chick lit, women’s fiction, children’s chapter books, and nonfiction under her own name and her Emma Carlyle pen name. Kirkus Reviews dubbed her critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series, “North Jersey’s more mature answer to Stephanie Plum.” In addition, Lois is a former literary agent and an award-winning craft and needlework designer who often draws much of her source material for both her characters and plots from her experiences in the crafts industry.




Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers blog






24 replies
  1. Maggie Toussaint
    Maggie Toussaint says:

    I killed off someone in a recent book. It was the villain, but due to the twist at the end, this person seemed to be on the up and up. The death was caused by a non-lethal Taser, but because this person neglected their health, it proved lethal. I only had one person comment on this as being "tragic" but I still stand by my guns. This person wouldn't have survived in any kind of confinement, and it was better to go out in a blaze of very fleeting glory. I actually wrote the ending in the more conventional way first and it just wasn't right. I looked at it during edits and made the decision to change Shrimply Dead to the way it is now. I killed a "darling" but the person caused their own death, so to speak, by their thoughts, words, and deeds.

    • Lois Winston
      Lois Winston says:

      Maggie, I think often in mysteries the victim's deeds and actions result in his/her death. There are very few mysteries where the death is from a random killing. Sometimes it's justified, other times not. But we do need dead bodies in our mysteries, and they have to be characters our readers will care enough about to continue reading to learn whodunit. And as authors, we need to be happy with the decisions we've made in our story.

  2. Donnell Ann Bell
    Donnell Ann Bell says:

    I can't think of any offhand, however, an Iris Johannsen book I read long ago, she killed off a character I thought was the protagonist midway through the book. I was stunned, disappointed, but kept on reading. Still….. I really liked that character.

    You can't kill off Lucille. She's a great foil for Anastasia, however, she is getting up there, but aren't we all? 🙂 Great post, Lois.

  3. Kate
    Kate says:

    Karin Slaughter killed off a series detective –and of course, Arthur Conan Doyle did too. (Or tried to, anyway).

    • Lois Winston
      Lois Winston says:

      Yes, there have been other authors who killed off characters, Kate. Many, though, like Arthur Conan Doyle, changed their minds after the outcry their decision caused. It's interesting to see how readers respond to extreme changes in their favorite series and how authors respond to their readers.

  4. Vicki Batman, sassy writer
    Vicki Batman, sassy writer says:

    I've been stunned when characters are killed off. One author turned the book and focused the whole next one on the killer and why he did it. Not popular with readers; however, I thought brilliant. The dead character had lost her usefulness and was fading away. And the hero became a little more damaged.

  5. Saralyn
    Saralyn says:

    Agatha Christie killed Poirot, because she didn't want another author to co-opt him after her own death.

  6. Lois Winston
    Lois Winston says:

    Vicki, I remember reading a romance back in the 90's where the author had turned the villain of her previous book into the hero of the next one. I had a hard time accepting that because the guy was just so vile previously. It was hard to accept that he'd changed.

  7. Jacqueline Vick
    Jacqueline Vick says:

    I remember that. I wrote to Ms. George and told her I was sorry to see the character go (don't want to ruin it for anyone who hasn't read the series) but it was a testament to her writing that I cared so much. She wrote back and thanked me for understanding. I assume she felt compelled to respond because my opinion was in the minority. 🙂

  8. Lois Winston
    Lois Winston says:

    Or it could be that she's someone who really appreciates hearing from readers and always responds to mail she receives from them. I wonder if she wrote back to those readers who were really upset by her decision to kill off the character. I've always felt that if someone takes the time to write to me, I should acknowledge the effort, whether they're praising me or criticizing me.

  9. Barbara Kyle
    Barbara Kyle says:

    Lois, thanks for the fascinating history about "murder your darlings." Having often offered this advice to writers I coach, I'm delighted to know its origin.

    • Lois Winston
      Lois Winston says:

      Hmm…I posted a reply earlier, but it never showed up. Barbara, I was surprised by the research I did. For some reason, I had always attributed the quote to Dorothy Parker, maybe because it sounded like something she would have said.

  10. Lois Winston
    Lois Winston says:

    You're welcome, Barbara. I was very surprised by what I discovered. For some reason I thought the quote was from Dorothy Parker.

  11. Gay Yellen
    Gay Yellen says:

    Oh those characters, love 'em or kill 'em. That's the question, isn't it, when we write a mystery? If a reader gets so invested in your your characters that they start telling you what each one's personal arc should be, it's a tribute to your writing, Lois.

  12. Kathleen Kaska
    Kathleen Kaska says:

    I remember when Elizabeth George killed off Richard Jury's wife. I was so made because she was my favorite character. I wasn't sure why she did it, except maybe for the shock effect. Look what happened when Arthur Conan Doyle tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes. London almost rioted.

  13. Lois Winston
    Lois Winston says:

    Kathleen, can you imagine how much worse it would have been if social media had been around when Arthur Conan Doyle killed Sherlock?

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