Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Killing Your Darling Sacred Cows

It has been said that writers should kill their darlings and slaughter their sacred cows. That is, that we need to be constantly on the watch for little turns of phrase, clever anecdotes, overused themes and recurring character-archetypes that we like too much.

Why are we on the lookout for such things? So we can kill them. That is, mercilessly excise them from our manuscripts, utterly erase them from our stories, and in general not use the things we like the most.

The problem is simply one of laziness and self-indulgence. By focusing too much on things we already know we like, we give ourselves the freedom to write without really thinking, to create the same old same old over and over again. Without growth, change, or challenge, or writing stagnates, and we begin to suck. Worse, or writing can become self-indulgent, cluttered with things we like that have no bearing on the work itself. When you find yourself including characters or plot devices just because you like them, not because you've seriously considered whether or not they fit the story at hand, it's time to be vewy vewy qwiet, because you're hunting dawlings.

Ok, so where am I going with this? I've repeated an admonition that I'm sure you're all already familiar with, and I've done it in a passably clever way. In the spirit of full disclosure, I will now progress to reveal a few of my sacred darling cows and dedicate myself to their all-to-timely demise.

* * *

Evil Parents: If you've been paying attention or otherwise know me in real life, you know that I've had a rocky relationship with my parents. We've argued, we've fought, we even didn't speak to each other for a while. As a result, I became quite fond of the evil parent or parents theme at an early age, to the point that it eventually graduated to a personal trope and from there to a darling sacred cow. Sometimes I find myself including difficult parents simply... because, without giving it any thought. Darling material. Time to die.

Helping & Creative Professions: Similarly, I grew up in a family where all the adults were either of a so-called "helping" profession - shrinks and social workers, doctors and nurses, teachers, etc. - or a creative type (yes, the same family). As a result, I find myself immediately thinking of potential characters in terms of which of these professions they have, when in fact there are many other possibilities. Nothing's wrong with being a businessman or a shopkeeper or a laborer, or a government official or a repairman or a dog walker. In fact, it's possible to live any profession in such a way that it is helping and creative. Besides, who said you had to be defined solely (or primarily, or even at all) by your job? It's time for me to stop jumping to how each of my characters is helpful or creative and start giving them jobs that serve the story.

Unrequited Romance: I'm a little too fond of this theme, and I've been known to throw it in there just for the hell of it. I've gotten better since my own love became requited, but sometimes I still have to catch myself from writing stories where the would-be lovers are kept apart just 'cause.

Magic: I like magic. I mean, who doesn't? However, possibly I like magic a little too much. When I begin imagining any kind of fantastic setting, my mind immediately jumps to "how does magic work, who can use it, and how?" and "which of the characters should be the magical one?" without passing go or collecting 200 mana. I'd be better served by asking myself the tougher questions, like "should magic exist in this setting at all?" and "if magic exists, should it be accessible to main characters, or something mysterious, more of a problem than a solution?"

I don't think I'm alone in this darling sacred cow. I'm not pointing fingers or naming names (*cough* the entire fantasy genre *cough*), but I think a lot of people need to think harder about magic.

The Gruff Yet Ultimately Lovable Dude Who Doesn't Want to be a Leader, Yet Takes Charge in an Emergency: If you've seen me play in a one-shot I wasn't thinking hard about, you've met this guy. He really has to die. Some of these darling sacred cows have redeeming characteristics, and this isn't one of them. After any one-shot in which I realize I've played this same guy, I am left with a bad taste in my mouth. I mean, it must be bad if I'm boring myself, right?

Similarly, the Lovably Eccentric Yet Incredibly Powerful and Influential Mentor Type is a goner. This is another one you know if you've ever gamed with me. Sometimes he's sweet and fun and clever, but sometimes he's boring and repetitive. I have some idea of why he has taken up such residence in my consciousness, but I don't care. This character has some redeeming qualities, but he needs to be a real person who appears this way, not a walking, talking type.

That's all the darling sacred cows I can think of right now. But get a good last look, because they're dead, each and every one of them.

Say your prayers, varmints!

* * *

  • If you're familiar with my writing (and I know a few of you are) what other darling sacred cows might I have missed?
  • What are your darling sacred cows?
  • Have you ever had a work seriously plagued by the appearance of this bovine scourge? What did you do about it?
  • Have you ever made a wholesale effort to slaughter your darling sacred cows? How did it go?

4 comments:

Abby said...

A couple of things that this made me think about:

Often, this is the problem with fanfiction (and other junky fiction). The writer, without self-awareness, or without caring, just keeps putting these things in. Even quite good and readable fanfic is incredibly guilty of this.

Which leads me to my next question: What do you do if your readers fall in love with your sacred cows and don't want them killed? I mean, people who read the Harry Potter fanfic Hero With A Thousand Faces LOVE the "Guy who's out of touch with his feelings and the smart girl who saves him from himself" or the "Harry is fucking badass with pretty much any weapon". What do you do when your readers want it too?

As for your own sacred cows, I think Jon and I can think of plenty. However, I at least know you too well to start listing them in public. :)

Scattercat said...

I always thought "Kill your darlings" referred more to particular turns of phrase than to set pieces and characters. That is, my biggest wrenches have always been cutting out the huge, unwieldy, adverb-laden, compound-complex extended metaphors and trimming the writing down to something readable instead of just pretty. My rule of thumb is "If I ask myself if X has to be in there, and then immediately think 'But I like it!', then X has to go."

Mark said...

@ The Abigail: You see, I think on some level "the fans love it" is a measure of success, and since the goal is to be a successful writer, well, then, the answer is "who cares?" If the stuff you're putting in has a place - and if your readers love it, it has a place - then clearly what you're doing works. If it ain't broke...

Of course, you, the writer, might feel that you are doing your readership a disservice by not challenging them, or that you are stagnating, yourself. In that case, by all means do something different, and if you're good enough, you'll carry it off.

And if you aren't good enough, or if you overestimated your readership's desire to be challenged, then the readers won't buy it and you'll lose their loyalty. And then you'll have to start from scratch. BUT, if you're the kind of writer who challenges herself on a regular basis, you'll be good enough to develop new readers, right?

Right?

Maybe not. It is a complicated question. However, I'm still hung up on readership = successes, darling cows = failure. Therefore readership =/= darling cows.

@ Scattercat: You got me. The original quote "kill your darlings" refers primarily to prosey habits. However, that's not quite as relevant to fiction (the quote refers to journalism) so I bastardized it with the more general concept of "sacred cows" to help the post fly.

I could talk more about quirks of writing that need to go, but those are harder to identify, and I'm not good enough to articulate my thoughts on the matter yet. Stay tuned.

Scattercat said...

I have found a tendency for my main characters to end up as bland "nice guy" males who are drawn into events by chance. I'm not sure if it's because then I have an excuse to explain things to them (Yay pedantry!) or because I think of myself as a vaguely bland "nice guy" and thus default to that mode.

It's sometimes very inconvenient. I end up writing backstory expositions that I don't want to because my main characters are friendly and curious.