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.




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!

The Ending of Harry Potter: What We Learned

You’ve stumbled upon the definitive exploration of the ending to Harry Potter.

Kick back, put on Nicholas Hooper’s brilliant soundtrack to The Half-Blood Prince, and discover why the Epilogue in HP is, what Rowling herself called, ‘a mistake.’

Here we find out why this one weakness in the fabulous fantasy creation should never have been.

Armed with this knowledge, you will be able to improve your own story endings.

So here are the problems with the HP Epilogue, in three conveniently bulleted points:

  • It added nothing to the characters and story
  • It inhibited discussion of possible futures for Harry Potter
  • Wrapping everything up with a neat bow was a contrived way to end a fantastic series, and it did not jive with what had gone before.

Your Book Endings

When you are writing your story ending (see Writers Digest for tips), one of the questions you need to ask yourself is: does this finale add depth to my characters? By the end of a tale, your characters need to have changed in some way. This means they must face either a new way of living, or a new way of looking at life. By the end of HP, our beloved characters have been through so much that they have changed much.

But then, the epilogue.

We see in these few pages that, following the battle at Hogwarts, our characters went through no more struggles, faced no more life altering situations. In the nineteen years that followed, they remained on the same dull path: Harry and Ginny (those two lovebirds without chemistry), and Hermione and Ron (that chemistry couple without love) stuck with each other.


What was the point in tacking on this neat little ending? So we could find out that they named their kids after the people they had lost? Aw, that’s sweet.

Epic Story Finales

After Harry mends his wand with the elder wand in the (real) final scene, we are left with delightful questions to ponder. Did any surviving death eaters try to steal the elder wand out of Dumbledore’s grave? Did they recover Voldemort’s body and try to resurrect it, or did Harry burn it?

Do Harry and company return to Hogwarts to finish their final year? Does Harry become a world class auror? Maybe another dark lord, with different powers, comes along and the Ministry turns to Potter for help. Now, that would be cool. I’d rather read that story than the Cursed Child.

But with the tidy bow epilogue, these questions become moot, as we see Harry is alive and well, and sporting a bit of a spare tire. Apparently nothing happened in 19 years. Come on, Rowling, you can do so much better.

You need to leave an opening for discussion at the end of your books. Oh, do solve the big mystery, but leave some questions unanswered. This promotes healthy discussion among your readers.

In my serial killer thriller, Ichabod, I resolve the main issues in an unexpected way, while leaving the ending open for discussion. What happens next?

With Rowling’s epilogue, nothing is added to the characters. We don’t realize anything new about them (except that, for the first time, they can be boring), and we are not left with questions. Everything is answered, nice and neat. This peaceful ending is in stark contrast with the entire series, where Harry and company face one delightful dilemma after another; it just felt tacked on, like the author had died and another author was brought on board to finish it, and this one had a completely different take on things.

In your endings, be sure to bring things full circle. Ask yourself, where did my book begin? In what sort of place were my characters? Make sure your ending honors your beginning. You don’t want it to seem like you forgot how your own story began. In the end, your characters must have learned from their experiences, but they also must remember where they began. The past may have been horrible, but it was important, and remains a vital key to who they are today. My psychological thriller The Light of Lexi Montaigne, brings everything full circle in one of those classic endings that make you go ‘Oh, now it all makes sense’ and inspires you to read it all over again.

Think about your book’s ending. ‘Happily ever after’ is nice if it’s a Disney tale, but it tends to feel contrived in most cases. As Rowling herself explained, distance makes the best editor. Put your MS away for awhile, and then come back with fresh eyes. You might be surprised what you see, and your new ending will be enhanced for your freshly acquired wisdom.