Have you been exposed to the famous quote of William Faulkner?
Well, if you haven’t, you have been now. But before we discuss this, there is some necessary housekeeping in order.
First, Faulkner may have said it at one point or another, but the quote does not originate with him. In an excellent article called Murder Your Darlings, published in Tin House magazine in 2013, Seth Fried tells us both that properly-placed credit must go to British author Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, and that actual murder has nothing to do with what he was talking about. That’s probably true of when Faulkner said it as well, but screw Faulkner, frankly. I mean LOOK AT THE GUY!!! Don’t you just want to belt him in the face? Can’t you just hear the words, “Your mother and I have decided to send you to a boarding school so that we can give all your cool toys to your little sister. Oh, and we’re getting her a puppy.”
Now with Quiller-Couch you get more last names, but perhaps less in the way of notable work, although I hear On the Art of Writing Lectures Delivered in the University of Cambridge 1913-1914 is a real edge-of-your-seat page turner. So good that Amazon is giving the Kindle version away for free. As a rule, I will jump on free books for my Kindle, but in this case I decided, “Nah, I’m a’ight.”
And as far as the meaning of the quote, all serious writers realize the topic here is what happens, or should happen in Sir Arty’s opinion, during the revision of your first draft. The darlings are your words, author and he’s calling for a bloodbath among them during revision, cutting anything that does not make the work better. And, as an aside, I am quite sure he never was talking about a film starring Harry Potter, although it was probably one of the best films to come out of Croatia that year. (Not kiddin’. Follow the link.) But let’s be honest. That’s not what we want it to mean. Who wants to talk about rewrites? (Well, Craig and I do, and will on a future episode, but that truth really softens the punch of the joke, so pretend you didn’t read it).
No, what we want it to be about is the characters themselves. In keeping with this month’s theme of the central importance of the character, in Episode Seven of Good Sentences, we discuss that moment when it becomes time to kill a character.
The death of a character can be one of the most dramatic, important moments in a book. Remember this?
When I read Gandalf’s death scene for the first time I was probably sixteen or so, and to this day I can still recall the feeling of physical discomfort in my gut when I did. Don’t recall if it was after lunch period, which certainly could have added to the the discomfort. But it was the “death” of my favorite character from the book that was the main source.
For Craig, it was the book Martin Eden, by Jack London that he remembers as delivering that same character death clout. I was thrilled, after hearing this news, to find out that my volume of the Best of Jack London contains the work, but if anyone would like to purchase this 100th Anniversary edition for my birthday, (which is creeping relentlessly toward my 100th Anniversary edition), hell yeah. I’d let ya. (The picture is a link, hint-hint.)
As traumatic as this can be for a reader, I would ask you now to shift your thinking slightly and imagine it from an author’s perspective.
A literary character, especially one that is well-crafted, deeply layered, and as complex as any real human you’ll meet, is to the author who breathed life into its nostrils a precious thing. I love my characters. In the show I describe my relationship with the characters I write as similar to an online-only Facebook friend. Depending on where you fall on the whole social media spectrum this might sound to you like I’m saying “Oh, a literary character? So what? It’s not like you’ve ever actually seen him/her.” But in my case, at the very least, I have some people who mean a great deal to me who are social-media-only (SMO) friends. Hell, until 2018 Craig and I had been SMO friends for seven years. We’d written books together, cheered for the other’s success, bought goats and named them after each other… wait, you guys don’t do that? That’s not a thing? He told me it was a thing! But in short, I’m talking about all the things you would do with an IRL friend.
Literary characters do not possess physical bodies. But if the author is doing his/her job, that should be the only difference. The reader should be able to feel like they know the person they’re reading about.
As a writer I can speak from experience about how attached the author can become to his/her characters. I was upset with myself for quite some time after finishing A Single Candle, as you’ll hear me explain in the podcast. Sometimes I still call myself bad names when I think about it, names like doody-head, spaz, and, worst of all, gunkie. Clearly I take the issue very seriously to be talking to myself like that!
And then there’s the “other kind of character.” You know. The one created for the sole purpose of dying eventually. Yeah, that guy/gal. Craig cops to creating bullet fodder in his mind blowing Shelby Alexander Series, (prompting me to admit the same about the Cleanup Crew books.)
By now, if you haven’t abandoned reading this post to go listen to the episode, you should. Among other things you’ll hear more about authors’ attachment to their darlings, and about the one author both Craig and I believe probably got into writing because it was as close as he was likely to get to killing anyone, but apparently he really likes it. Not naming any names, but he has the same middle initials as Tolkien, the TV show based on his books rhymes with Fame of Bones, and he looks like this:
So click the “Listen” link in our topside menu, or if scrolling that far back makes you feel icky, then just click here. I won’t judge you. Craig will, but not me. [Ed. Note: Craig Hart is a very nice, non-judgmental fellow.] [Scott’s Rebuttal Note: He is a fine fellow, but he’s totally judging us all, and, sadly, finding us lacking.]