Why you have to kill your darlings, with that one guy from that one movie

Posted: December 3, 2012 in Movies, Writing
Tags: , , , ,

Here’s the next post in this series where I discuss TV shows and movies and the knowledge that we can gain from watching them. We can apply that knowledge to our writing. As always, I never pretend to be an expert. I just like exploring my own thoughts on the matter as I write these blog posts! I welcome all comments and would love to hear what you think about this topic.

Make sure you check out my previous post, titled, “How to write a dynamic character arc, with Caroline Forbes.”

WARNING: This post contains spoilers for both The Avengers and the Firefly follow-up movie Serenity.

As writers, we often fall in love with our own characters. It’s not hard to do. After all, you spend so many hours with them, and you know each and every one of their secrets. You know exactly the type of person they are underneath the face they present to the world. That type of raw honesty and understanding is hard to resist.

So, when the time comes to kill one of your characters, it can be one of the hardest decisions you make. Sometimes they feel like your children, or your lovers, or your best friends. And you’re the one that has to drive a stake through their heart.

It’s not easy.

But it’s necessary.

The best example I can think of is in The Avengers when Phil Coulson dies. Up until this point, each of the superheroes was only looking out for themselves. They weren’t trying to work as a team. They didn’t see the bigger picture. They just wanted to prove they were the better man.

And then Phil died.

Avengers Phil CoulsonPhil was just about the one thing they all had in common. He held a place in each of their hearts, no matter how small that place that was. He had a relationship with each one and each of the heroes liked him. It wasn’t like Fury, who was obviously connected to each one as well, but was also the boss and, in some scenes, the antagonist. It was different with Coulson.

So why did Joss Whedon kill off Coulson? Because he had to. It was the spark that ignited the fire underneath the Avengers’ butts. It got them angry. It made them determined. They’d win the war for Coulson, because he died believing in what they were a part of.

Coulson’s death was the catalyst. It’s actually what moved the movie forward and into that final act. Not all deaths are like that, but it’s important to note that even though Coulson was important and loved (especially by fans), he had to die. It had to happen.

Other examples come to mind, like Wash from Serenity. His death didn’t work in quite the same way as Coulson’s did, but it was still important and still noteworthy. Sometimes death occurs because that’s the next logical step. Sometimes it occurs because other characters need to know what it feels like to lose someone they are close to. Characters are only interesting when they change, and sometimes they can only change when something drastic happens.

So, kill your darlings. Take those beloved characters, chew them up, and spit them out. It’s sad and horrible and will leave a bad taste in your mouth, but it’s so important to do it. It’ll effect your reader, and that’s a good thing. The more emotions they feel, the more invested and attached they are to your book.

These are just two tiny, tiny examples in a world of beloved characters that had to bite the bullet. Just in Harry Potter alone I can name ten people off the top of my head who also fall into this category. In fact, the death  of loved ones was the driving force behind all seven books. It’s horrible what Harry went through in his life, but (from a writing standpoint) it was so, so necessary.

And on that note, I’ll also say that if you do kill off a character, stick with it. You can bring some characters back to the dead, surely, but it depends on the circumstances. Most of the time, dead is dead and it’s better that way. You’ll lose the impact of death in your stories if you backtrack too many times. I love a good death (which sounds weird, but is true). I love to cry and be angry and hate the writer(s) for taking a little piece of my soul. But it’s cathartic and sometimes feels that way actually makes you feel better.

What is the most heart wrenching character death you’ve ever experienced in someone else’s work? Have you ever had to kill off a character you loved?

  1. Mr Sunday says:

    Great article!

  2. Joss Whedon is very good at killing beloved characters, I thought that Penny’s death in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog was pretty good 😀 no wait 😦

  3. Julie Glover says:

    Star Trek: Tasha Yar. Didn’t see that coming.

  4. Debra Kristi says:

    Thank you for writing this. I thought about it right after the movie and then never did it. Wash’s death hurt – a lot. But like you said, Josh is good at that and we can all learn from him. Phil had to die and Josh is never afraid to make that call. I love him for that. We need to attack our little darlings with the same bravery.

    • Karen Rought says:

      Oh, it hurt so bad. SO bad. And Joss knew it would. Wash wasn’t like most of the other characters in that they were a little good, a little questionable. Wash was 100% lovable and that’s why it killed us when he died. But what are you going to do? The worst part is when Joss said that if he had gotten more seasons instead of doing the movie, he wouldn’t have killed him. *headdesk*

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