Kill Your Darlings–Or at Least Put Them Through the Ringer

Have you ever felt sorry for people who profit without pain, who never get hurt or sick?

Of course not! Those people are super annoying.

Well, the same rule applies to writing: if you want your readers to sympathize with your characters, you better make darn sure you put them through the ringer. Hurt them, punish them, and force them to face their fears, defeat them and sometimes even kill them.

George double ‘R’ Martin is a master at what all authors should know: hurting your darlings creates tension, believability, and unpredictability.

Tension

Believability

Unpredictability

These three aspects of a novel are markers of professionalism. Put your characters through the ringer. Hurt them emotionally and physically. If you show that James can get hurt, then later in the novel when he is taken captive, your readers will bear down and become (deliciously) uncomfortable. They will feel for James. They will worry and wonder if he will survive this, or how he will be changed if he does. They won’t know what exactly will go down because you’ve shown them that anything is impossible.

This is how best-selling authors of mystery and suspense and other genres captivate their readers; they know that hurting their darlings—and even sometimes killing them—is the most surefire way of creating unpredictable, believable, tense plots.

So the next time your Katniss is being chased by a wolf, maybe let the wolf take a chomp out of her leg or scratch her up real good. This will provide the above traits, while also leaving your character scarred. That jagged memento of her close call will be a constant reminder of how fragile and unpredictable life is, and it will serve to strengthen her inner resolve. It will also make her look like a total kick-butt star.

Look at Harry Potter. Rowling gave him the scar early on and then put him through hell.

The Boy Who Lived was:

bullied by teachers and students, mocked, publicly vilified, accused of lying, tortured in class by Unspeakable Curses, raised by monster Dursley’s, scratched, bitten, haunted, possessed, blown back, cursed, temporarily lost all the bones in one arm, mocked, lied to, forced to slash bloody words into his hand, killed, and given a pointless epilogue.

And boy did we root for him.

You get the idea. The great thing is that you will enjoy hurting your darlings. It’s good clean fun!