Kill your darlings.
The first time I heard that phrase I thought it was awful. What kind of a sadistic person would deliberately kill a character you created that wasn’t an evil villain?
Your characters are like your friends. You know them inside and out. You’ve created them with distinct personality traits and flaws. Hopefully, you’ve got your readers to connect with those characters.But now some writing Guru has told you to kill them.
I have to be honest, it took me a while to fully understand why you would do this. But now that I know, I’m not afraid to do it.
Having a murder in your mystery is pretty much a no-brainer. The reader usually doesn’t have a chance to get to know the victim, so you don’t feel any guilt having killed the character. But there’s more at stake when the characters have had a chance to become known to your reader.
Why would you put your characters in mortal danger? There are a number of reasons, but probably the most common is to build tension, or change the direction of the story. In a cozy mystery, it’s rare that a killing is random, there must be a meaning behind it. Keep this in mind and don’t go killing characters just for the sake of excitement. And a word of warning: you can kill the granny next door, but don’t kill her pet! For some reason, readers (myself included) get upset at the death of a animal. The animal can accidentally cause a death, but Fido or FeeFee must walk away unscathed.
In the book I’m working on now, I was stumped. I had all the clues in place, the red herrings were planted everything was going smoothly. Yet, I was bored. And if I was bored, I knew my reader would be too. But there was this one annoying character…
Yes, I’ll admit, I killed her. This added urgency to the story. And it also explains some plot points.
Do I feel guilty about killing off my darling? Maybe a little. I think I had honestly hoped to redeem her and make her a little bit more likable at the end of the book. But not everybody can be redeemed, and not everybody can be liked.
No, I’m not saying go and start killing off your characters merely to build tension in your story. There are other ways that you can create the same tension without being murderous.
Something unexpected or harmful can happen to a character. Thrown for a loop, your characters will act differently than the reader is expecting. Use those unexpected events to build more tension or even to set up an explaination that must be answered by the end of the book.
There, now I put some evil thoughts into your head as a writer.
Take a good hard look at your characters and decide whether you kill them off or just throw an unexpected twist their way.