Kill your darlings

Pigeon bus

I need to kill my darlings.

I’m not talking about that hackneyed ‘get rid of your good writing’ thing that may or may not be good advice (Spoiler: it’s good advice if it’s qualified enough to make it entirely different advice). I’m talking about rather more literal darlings. I’m talking about characters.

In 1998 or thereabouts I came up with a character for a roleplaying game. His name is Andrew Cairns, and he’s Australian. G’day.

A little later, in 2003ish, I came up with another. His name’s Paul Hazel and he was originally a wrestler.

I’ve been carrying these guys with me in my head for nearly two decades. I’ve been on many imaginary adventures with them. Gradually they’ve been moulded and grown far beyond the source material. They now inhabit their own fully-developed worlds.

So when I fancied writing a new novel it seemed natural to turn them into protagonists. I tinkered and shaped in my mind to worldbuild them a framework; to strip them out of their source material and create a universe that’d be worth exploring. I gave them an antagonist and a mission. And I set them loose.

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I’m quite pleased with the result. I’ve created a story with a plausible ‘world’ and a villain who’s a real star. The newly-created characters are fun to write and, I think, read well too.

The characters that hold the story back are, as you’ve probably guessed, Paul Hazel and Andrew Cairns.

The reason for this, I think, is that these two characters are overwritten. I’ve spent too long with them. They’re fully rounded, matured: I’ve not left any room for them to grow.

I listened to a podcast recently which said that the best characters are brought to the world without baggage. Certainly all my favourite characters in my own writing are the last-minute spur-of-the-moment creations.

From the policemen hastily conjured to fill gaps in my first never-to-be-shared novel The Ballad of Lady Grace, to the haunted, sleep-deprived Saira in Oneiromancer, the characters who sing for me are the ones I’d never met before setting finger to keyboard.

Hazel and Cairns came to the novel fully grown. All the interesting things about them had already happened. I left no room for them to grow into, no space for change. They’ve become immutable, ossified.

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They might be well-written, they might be realistic, they might be nuanced and have hidden depths – and let’s not forget the whole novel is built around them – but they’re sucking the life from the story.

All those guides for creating characters (like this, for example; there are hundreds out there) are just guides for carving blocks of wood. If they have any use it’s in helping remember the ideas you come up with on the fly. Otherwise just forget them. Bin them. Burn them.

Write. Let your characters surprise you. Run your plot into a place where you need a person, then click your fingers and bring alive the first thing that comes into your mind.

They’ll be a whole lot more realistic than the person you spent days creating a whole back-story for.

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This blog has been brought to you by a critique by @orcsandelves and a particular podcast from a source that, after going on about relentlessly for the last few months, I am sworn not to name.

 

Back to the egg

michaelangelo

A metaphor. By Michaelangelo, so you can tell it’s quality

The journey matters. That’s what a story is: the account of an ‘adventure’, be it a romp through demon-infested caverns or the tale of an old woman’s last days in splendid isolation. And, at its heart, the journey is not a physical voyage but a state of mind. A satisfying story will be one where the characters finish up as different people to those who set out.

This is what I’m getting wrong.

It’s been a gradual feeling creeping over me over the course of several drafts. I have a large cast. Some of the characters I’ve worked with were created on the spur of the moment, designed to fill a need and who have then grown. Others I’ve had in my head for years and I’m finally getting round to setting in an actual story.

Guess which ones I’ve done badly.

Yup, that’s right: it’s the ones I’ve held longest. They don’t grow. They don’t have the arcs. What I’m gradually coming to realise is that I’ve started their tales in the wrong place. They are too complete, too mature: they’ve fought their battles already and have found peace. Great for them but no good for my readers.

When we first see a character in a novel they need to be flawed. They might have incredible powers; they might be geniuses, they might have colossal strength but they don’t have a personality without a flaw. They must have a weakness – either physical or emotional or social – that we must see them conquer.

Which is why the next draft of Oneiromancer must de-age some of my characters. I possibly mean that literally – just take my characters back in time a little – but the crucial thing is that they start at an earlier stage of their development. I’ve skipped the introduction and rushed straight to the climax. No-one likes a Mary-Sue: I must take them back to when they were apprentices, not masters.

This is difficult. I’ve lived with these people for a long time – for too long. They’re fixed in my brain. Hell, they’re wish-fulfilment – the sort of people I want to be. Before I can get it right I need to let go. I need to redefine them in my mind, to divorce them; to sever the emotional bond I’ve built up over a decade or more.

This is a challenge. And I hate hard work.

A letter to beta-readers everywhere

Dear Reader

So. Here we are again. How many times do we have to go through this, huh? I thought that the last time was…. Well, the last time. But no. Once again you let me down and we have to go through this whole pathetic rigmarole once more.

What’s that you say? It’s my fault? That they were my errors and you were doing me a favour anyway? Nonsense. No-one writes magic on the first pass. It’s down to you to let me know what’s working and what isn’t. If you’d have given me what I wanted initially we might both have been spared this abomination. So I’ve come up with a list of things I actually want you to evaluate as you read through my novel once again. If a job’s worth doing it’s worth doing properly and all that.

So, no slacking, no excuses. Here’s what I want you to think about.

The basics:

  • Typos, spelling, grammar – you know this. But please do draw any errors to my attention
  • Unspecified ‘bad writing’. If I could make something clearer/be sharper, or if something just could be better-written please do let me know
  • Punctuation matters. Tell me if I’ve got it wrong!
  • Under no circumstances allow me to dangle my modifiers

Plot:

  • Do you understand the plot? Is it rational/fair? Is it sufficiently complex but not over-complicated?
  • Are any threads left tangling? Any subplots left unresolved?
  • Does it sustain your interest?
  • Any McGuffins left hanging? Are there any Chekov’s Gun’s carelessly lying around?

Style:

  • Are there too many rhetorical questions?
  • Does the novel ‘flow’ right? Is it well paced, and were there any sections that dragged?
  • Does the mood change across scenes, but not too abruptly within them?
  • Are any bits of information repeated?
  • Is anything underexplained?

Character/dialogue:

  • Did you get a clear impression of the characters?
  • Were they consistent? Did they ever do anything that seemed awry to you?
  • Were there any sections of dialogue that seemed stiff or unnatural?

Other:

  • Were there any ideas that seemed hackneyed or old-hat?
  • Any clichés?

Remember, I don’t just want to know about things that are ‘bad’; I also want to know if I can do anything better. I realise that might mean the whole damn thing, but I’m a terrible judge of my own writing. I’m also lazy and, given the chance, would happily hop-and-skip straight across a passage if it’s not scribbled over in red pen with a big note saying ‘rewrite; you could do this better’.

So, let’s get down to it. Are you ready? Maybe, if you do your job properly this time, we’ll crack it this time.

Yours, with begrudging thanks

The Author