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 things—either 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.