Most writers, when they talk about killing their darlings, are referring to particular lines or passages that they just love, but that don’t really work.
The darling I had to kill was an entire scene. I couldn’t really open my novel for revision until I finally let go of a scene that I knew in my heart of hearts was forced. I wanted something to happen and I looked for ways to make that happen. When I manipulate my characters, it shows. (read more)
Here’s my secret for how I can stand making bad things happen to characters I care about: I don’t. I don’t make bad things happen to my characters, I envision a world where people have compelling adventures and opportunities to “show their quality” as J.R. Tolkien’s Faramir said.
Bad things happen in the world I envision, painful, damaging things. But those things don’t happen because I’m doing these things to the characters. They happen because that’s the kind of world, situation and story the characters are in.
Frodo doesn’t inherit the ring of power because Tolkien had it in for him or wanted to see him suffer. Frodo inherits the ring because he happens to be Bilbo’s nephew. Orcs don’t attack the company of the ring because Tolkien wants them to suffer, orcs attack the company because that is the nature of orcs.
Bilbo found the ring because as Gandalf says “Bilbo was meant to find the ring.” Gandalf is not saying “Because Tolkien wants it to be this way,” he’s saying there are larger powers, forces of good and evil, at work in the world.
The jury votes against Tom Robinson, not because Harper Lee wanted the jury to be racists, but because that was the nature of juries in that part of the country at that time. Harper Lee wasn’t causing racism or endorsing it, she was shining a light on it.
The Dream of Fiction
A good fiction writer is a magician who discovers the dreams of her/his own unconscious and finds the specific sensory details to conjure that dream into the mind of another person. The moment the magician appears on stage to take a bow or add a flourish that highlights “I created this,” the dream is broken. Instead of sharing the dream, the audience begins to wonder “How did s/he do that?”
Before I killed the darling scene, I was making things happen to my characters. I was manipulating instead of dreaming. And because I was consciously trying, I couldn’t take it far enough, I couldn’t hurt the characters the way the story demanded. When my ego is involved, the dream that is the heart of good fiction slips away.
When I try to force the writing from an ego-stance, it shows. The dream cannot serve the ego-self; the dream is too big. The ego must step aside and let the unconscious mind reveal the dream.
My final advice to T.R., whose mind goes blank when she needs ideas for how to break a character, is to get your ego out of the way. Stop trying to figure it out with your rational, conscious mind. Your resistance and inability to “make it happen” is a sign that you have good instincts as a writer.
I dreamstorm, as Robert Olen Butler recommends in From Where You Dream (read more). I don’t make bad things happened to my characters, I enter the dreamworld they exist in and watch the multiple and contradictory ways events could unfold. I discover the story there and translate it back here.
I don’t claim to be a great novelist, but I do think great novelists use their own variation of discovering and translating dreams. Great fiction cannot be conjured on stage by the ego-magician. So why bother trying to make bad things happen?