Kill Your Darlings, A+. Kill Your Buddies, Epic Fail.

Jun 4, 2010

My six-year-old Tasmanian devil of a nephew has one great love in life: Halo. To him, this game is the absolute coolest thing on the planet, and it’s hilarious to watch him play. He’s a good sport (after falling off a walkway when playing with my husband, he cheerfully said, “So long, Uncle D, I died!”), and he’s surprisingly good at it. His favorite part of the game, however, is not blasting alien scum to pieces.

He likes to kill his buddies.

It’s a little disturbing, really, to see him gleefully turn the Master Chief against the Marines who are righteously killing aliens right alongside him. His “buddies,” he calls them as he maniacally guns them down one by one. Funnily enough, his computer-directed buddies don’t like being shot by their leader, and will actually turn around and kill him.

All this got me thinking. Writers often hear the phrase “kill your darlings” in reference to scratching out those beloved but out-of-place pieces of our story that hold it back. “Kill your buddies” has a whole different writing connotation. I like to see it in these terms: when you take a character (aka the Master Chief) and have them do something they would never do (like shoot their buddies), you’ve just hit EPIC FAIL status.

It’s not all that difficult of a trap to fall into. I did it as I was outlining my current wip. “Gee, wouldn’t it be a totally awesome plot twist to have THIS happen!” Uh, okay, but usually plot action is determined by character action—and this twist was something this particular character would NEVER do. Readers are smart. They’ll see through this immediately and your book will be tied to a stake and burned, never to be read again.

Of course, you want your characters to be surprising. Maybe your character really would do X because of some deep, hidden, conflict-ridden motivation. Awesome. But hint at it beforehand. Foreshadow. Make the reader hit that point and shriek, “NO FREAKIN’ WAY! Why didn’t I see that coming?”

So go on. Be surprising. Bring in that twist, that OMG moment. Just don’t kill your buddies.


Angie said...

You're so right. I'll just put down a book if suddenly the characters start doing totally out of character stuff. But if you can hint and foreshadow and give them the proper motivations, the sudden surprise can be awesome!

MTeacress said...

It's only happened to me a couple of times, but yes, I'll actually get mad if the characters do something that seems utterly unbelievable.
I like your blog. ;)

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Leaving aside the disturbance in the force created by a 6yo playing Halo, I like your point about not having your MC flip out and do something very not-MC-like. But when I clicked over to your blog post (from yalitchat!) I was halfway expecting a post about characters dying (as in, can you kill off a character or not?). That's something that I wonder about in YAlit - can a character (a Main Character, not a sidekick, or an uncle or some such) die? Or is that verboten? :) Yes, I like fancy vaguely german words. Tee hee. :)

Anyway, what do you think?

Shallee said...

@Susan Hm, good question. It's one that actually came up in my crit group a few weeks ago, and I think it depends. Normally, I'd say it's not a good idea (especially for YA)-- mostly from a marketing standpoint since the general American public isn't a fan of losing their favorite characters. I think, though, that if the story is strong enough and that it's a point that makes the story stronger, it can work. I think it depends on the genre you're writing in, too.

I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I think you can't kill off the MC that your audience identifies - that would just be traumatic and kinda creepy. But say your MC has a love interest that dies? Or a significant family member? I think it can be done, but it needs to be something that's integral to the story, or makes an important point in the story. Someone (I can't remember where, or I'd cite it) recently posted about how the important thing about the death of a character should be how it affects the other characters. So, if your MC has a love interest that dies, what does that mean for the MC, and the central conflict of the story? It could be a pivotal point in the story, a motivation for growth for your character, depending on how they react to the death.

Still, I'm a bit nervous about the thought of doing it! :)

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