Murder your darlings, but DON’T kill your heroine!

Why you should cut your ego out of your writing…but still let your strong female protagonist live to tell the tale.

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
―Arthur Quiller-Couch

Kill Your Darlings.

Faulkner said it and most of the writers I know believe this to be a useful admonition.

The most common protest goes something like, “Why teach writers to cut whatever it is they feel most passionate about? Why not murder everything they DON’T love, until only the darlings remain?”

It all depends how you define “darlings.”

The way I see it, “murder your darlings” doesn’t mean you should cut the parts you love. It means you should take a moment to assess WHY you love them. It means identifying your attachments and cutting out the parts you’re hanging onto because of your ego, because of something that has nothing to do with the work, or because you think what you wrote was in some way super clever.

One of the best pieces of artistic advice I ever got was this:

Learn to differentiate between what is clever, and what is truly creative, and err on the side of the latter.

Murdering darlings also means smashing through attachments to certain details, places, or characters that may have, at first, seemed germane to the story, but as you write, are not. It’s easy to get comfortable with what’s familiar, and you could accidentally spend half a book rooted in nostalgia that the reader simply doesn’t feel.

In other words, just because you loved that little coffee shop where that important catalyst conversation occurred, doesn’t necessarily mean you should describe the cute vintage table cloth, no matter how poetic.“Murder your darlings” helps you focus on writing only the details that shape characters, reveal truths, and drive the story forward. Nobody cares about that tablecloth, (unless the tablecloth is somehow connected to the root of the story, in which case, yes!)

And so, darling-o-cide becomes part of the editing process — a filter of sorts.

When it comes to getting a good roll going with the work and not getting stuck trying to create a perfect sentence every time, murdering darlings is super handy. When you let go of writing beautiful sentences and focus instead on writing unforgettable stories, you won’t get mired in the details and your stories will actually get finished! (And hopefully, published.)

Also, when working with editors, critics, and beta readers, if you are fully willing to let the darlings die, you are much less likely to get defensive and miss important points of a critique. Writers should seek critique like we seek coffee — daily, and in large doses. But if we’re too emotional about the work as-is, how are we going let it improve?

So yeah, it’s useful.

However, what “kill your darlings” does NOT mean, to me, is to kill off your awesome feminist heroines. Don’t do that!

There are plenty of great stories that include, or conclude with, the death of the protagonist, and I’m not saying no protagonist should ever die at the end of a book. But I AM saying that, if your goal is, like mine, to write stories about empowered, feminist women, you should consider keeping them alive.

Here’s why:

1. It’s lazy writing, and it’s been done.

Consider all the creative ways we could represent amazing women with stories of birth and rebirth. Women give birth to babies in stories all the time, and don’t even get me started about the “I’m pregnant” plot crutch. I freakin loathe it. Meanwhile, where are the stories of heroines giving birth to ideas, innovations, revolutions, and civilizations? We need more of these stories. We need to write them, ourselves.

It’s too easy to repeat those boilerplate blockbuster patterns that demand we kill off beloved characters, just to keep the audience on the edge of their seats, and the market sure seems to love it! But we aren’t here to reinvent the wheel. We’re here to create a totally new mode of transportation.

But does that pattern reinforce patriarchal messaging? It might, so you have to think critically about it. It’s possible that you’re just taking the easy road, and that you’re not being as creative as you could be.

It’s also possible that you’re killing your heroine to avoid having to tell the rest of her story. For most of us, writing is so much more than work or hobby. It’s a form of self care, it’s our indulgence, and it’s a huge part of our identity.

If your protagonist has gotten a little too real, killing her could be cathartic, or, as I hinted at above, it could just be a way to avoid writing what could very well be the best work you’ve ever done. So yes, kill your darlings! But, don’t run from them. Run towards them. Write towards the fear. Write her life, not her death.

2. She doesn’t deserve to be punished.

If you still feel like the death of your heroine seems like a good way to end her story, try asking yourself: what is she dying for?

Promiscuity? Sacred knowledge? Healing abilities? Putting herself first? Something to do with a MAN?

However subtle, killing a heroine sends the message that she is BAD, and deserves to die. A woman who has spent most of the story being in her body and enjoying it, courting the unknowable, caring for the planet, and/or putting her needs ahead of others is a threat to the patriarchal status quo. Let’s not shoot her down for it, even if by accident.

3. You might need her for the sequel.

If you want to make a living as a writer, someone’s got to love your work, and if you can keep a powerful story going for a few installments, you’ve got a much bigger chance of reaching lots of people.

But, if your heroine expires during her first outing, you lose the option to evolve her — -for your own enjoyment as a storyteller and/or for the sale of your work. Especially if you’re just starting out — this first heroine will, in every way imaginable, teach you how to write, if you let her. Why not give her time to do that?

Plus, you can’t sell a franchise idea without your main character! If you entertain any Hollywood fantasies whatsoever, you’re going to need to keep that heroine alive. The YA series-to-TV franchise market is alive and well, and most of those readers are female.

4. Enough women are dying, and some need to survive.

If we want to change our culture from a consumptive, violent, and dying one into a regenerative, peaceful, and thriving one, then we need to be telling stories that depict women in a much larger diversity of scenarios than mainstream literature and cinema has even attempted. This includes all of the layers of those stories, from how women view themselves, how they interact with each other and the natural world, how they resolve conflict, what they do for a living, where their talents lie, all the way through to how their stories end.

It takes power and strength to continue living in a patriarchal world, and to thrive in the face of oppression. And every day, women with amazing power and strength die at the hands of patriarchy. The beast is real, and he is coming for the children! And yet, we’re also surviving. We’re growing and connecting and organizing and saving our seeds, and these are the stories we need to write.

Death is real, and a real consequence of oppression, and maybe we can see this through a similar lens as we see those tired and tropey rape scenes that are used as plot devices far too often. Yes, it happens in real life and hell no we should not ignore it or be silent, but we need to create more heroines who are not defined by their trauma, with stories that don’t use that trauma as a manipulative tool for audience emotions. Personally, I’d rather write about the best thing that ever happened to a woman, not the worst. I’ll continue to work to end violence in real life, and avoid using violence to end my protagonists.

We need extraordinary stories about ordinary women who find ways to thrive in the muck of male violence, so that we can be inspired to emulate them. Writing about brilliant women is a radical act, and what’s even more radical is to lift up other women, in real life, and to help them stay aloft. Give us heroines we can grow old with. Give us some heroines who give us hope.

By the way, you should definitely TRY to kill her!

In fact, having the real and life-threatening dangers of being female come at her from every direction is a great way to push the story forward. If you think about it, life is trying to kill us every day, and some might even say that’s the price of humanity.

So, go ahead and let the world punish her, for all of the wonderful ways in which she lives her truth, because this is real and it’s germane to the story. And then, let her prevail. Let her win, even if sometimes it seems like we aren’t. Otherwise, all is lost.

“It was easy enough to kill yourself in a fit of despair. It was easy enough to play the martyr. It was harder to do nothing. To endure your life. To wait.” 
Erica Jong

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