Especially when you kill a beloved character
As a writer, I confess there are things I consider challenging, because, as the title says, writing can be hard. But, it’s not always challenging in the ways you might think. Sure, it can be difficult to keep writing a priority when life gets busy (especially when you’re a mama who is homeschooling her 13-year-old, and navigating remote learning with her 11-year old). And sometimes finding the exact right word to match the scene playing in my mind isn’t easy.
But, for me, writing becomes hardest when dealing harshly with a character. As one who creates stories (or, rather, captures them on the page as they play out like a movie on a screen in my writer mind), my characters are as much like living people as friends or family. So you can only imagine what it’s like when the story I’m capturing takes a turn for the worse for one of my characters.
Now, while Stephen King’s quote refers to many aspects of editing one’s writing – excessive words, subplots that aren’t working, tired phrases – for me, sometimes I refer to it when I need to cut a character from a story, or, even worse, kill off a character, because, well that’s what the story calls for as it unfolds.
Killing a character? That’s when the writing gets really hard for me. Emotionally hard because I am emotionally invested in the characters I spend time with every day in my writing. Interestingly, Willow’s mother, in the scene included below, was already deceased when I first began writing my story, Rewriting Destiny, so that wasn’t a difficult process to handle.
But the longer I spent with the story and my main characters, Willow and Poppy, the more things started shifting. For example, my characters are older than I believed them to be. Additionally, Willow’s father is layered and his backstory is far more complicated than I knew. And, finally, Willow’s mother isn’t content to show up only in flashbacks; she wants a much bigger role in the story, and Willow’s life.
And, like I said, sometimes, I am but a scribe who is capturing the story as it plays out in my writer mind. I get to spy on and eaves drop on my characters, their relationships, their lives, and their journeys. Suffice it to say, what Willow’s mother wants, Willow’s mother gets – she’s a much more important character in the story and has much wisdom to share.
But that also means, she’s about to die on the page. Even after I’ve spent time with her and have gotten to know and truly like and appreciate her. That, my friends, is what this writer considers perhaps the hardest part of writing. And so I remind myself that sometimes killing my darlings means killing a beloved character.
But sometimes writing can be hard. Even so I write the scene because the story demands it. I write the scene in emotional layers and with many iterations, tweaking dialogue and listening at the door to the room where things are taking place. Like Willow, I hold my breath and wait to hear what her mother is going to tell her. This is, after all, only the first layer for this scene. It’s new. It’s raw. It requires a lot of me as a writer and a human being. Death is never easy, even when it’s a character in a story.
Because even as the writer, I don’t quite know yet what comes next. But I trust the process and I trust my characters, and I embrace not knowing what comes next. For me, that’s one of the easier things about writing because even while writing can be hard, like now, the fun part is the honor of serving the story by capturing it on the page.
Darkness Falls – the first layer of writing
“Until morning,” said Willow. She watched her friend wind her way along the path that led to the far side of the village near the woods and then turned and entered her dwelling with a joy overflowing with excitement and anticipation. “Hello, mama, I have so much to share with you from my afternoon. But first, how can I help you with the evening meal?”
Without thinking, Willow tended the fire they needed to warm the breads and the vegetables. Her father would cook the meat over the outside fire using the dome he’d crafted from the mud and clay to trap the heat and cook the meat to its most tender. Willow could smell the smoky fragrance of the meat and her stomach reminded her she’d walked many paths during the daylight and she was deeply hungry. As she stirred the wood fragments in the fireplace, Willow noticed it was oddly quiet. A glimpse at the table told her her mother had not yet set out the table settings for the evening meal despite the meat already filling the living space with its delicious aroma.
“Mama?” Willow peeked into the kitchen space and became slightly unsettled to see it empty and without preparations for their meal. It was unlike her mother not to be in motion around the kitchen, preparing greens and breaking bread into servings and for there to be at least one clay pot filled with root vegetables in the fire. She walked back to the fireplace to check again, suddenly unable to recall if she’d noticed vegetables warming for the evening meal. There were none.
“Mama?” Willow’s voice carried a tension she was working to ignore with little success. As she stared at the fire, she heard a low moan from her father’s sleeping space off the living space. Because she could smell the mix of smoke and meat through the kitchen window, Willow’s mind fought to make sense of the sound, the absence of her mother at work in the kitchen. Images from the morning meal and NAME sitting at their table discussing her grandfather moved through her thoughts. Instinctively, she moved toward the sound, her feet moving silently over the stone floor and her breath caught somewhere between her lungs and the space around her.
Another groan pulled the air from her lungs as she stood in the archway that led to the sleeping space. In the dimming light of the room Willow could make out a figure curled beneath the quilts. “Mama?” Willow’s voice was a whisper of breath and fear in the shadowed room. The figure moved at the sound of her voice and Willow knelt beside her mother.
“Mama, what is it? What has happened?”
Her mother’s eyes were hazy and watery, but she smiled when she saw her daughter’s face. “Willow.” Her mother’s voice was but a wisp of breath on the air between them.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” Willow placed a hand upon her mother’s forehead, something her mother had done many times when Willow was a young girl and was ill. How she wished Poppy had come in with her after all, to see her mother one final time before their journey tomorrow. She hated being alone right now. She didn’t know what to do and she wanted to cry. Instead, she took her mother’s shaky hand in hers and leaned her head close to her mother’s. “I’m here, mama. I’m here,” she said. “You’re going to be okay.”
Willow turned to leave the room and her mother gripped Willow’s hand as tightly as she was able. In response, Willow smoothed her mothers hair away from her face and whispered reassuringly. “It’s okay. I’m going to get a damp cloth for you. It’s okay.” She leaned down and kissed her mother’s cheek. “It’s okay,” she said again.
She sat in the growing darkness and pressed the cool, damp cloth to her mother’s forehead, singing the lullaby her mother had sung to her when Willow was a young girl. Although she was desperate to ask her mother what had happened to make her so ill in such a short time, Willow chose to provide what little comfort she could for the moment. As she sang she heard her father come into the dwelling and she smelled the meat, hungry for it as soon as the aroma filled the room where she sat with her mother. As she listened to her father place the meat on the unreadied table, Willow held herself perfectly still, anticipating her father’s approach when he saw little had been done to prepare the evening meal.
Her mind traveled to the clay pot of vegetables and for a moment she worried they might have burnt because neither her mother nor Willow had tended to them. The absurdity of that thought collided in her mind with the fear of her mother’s illness. She awaited her father’s voice in the stillness. When it didn’t come, something deep in Willow shifted and despite her fear, she felt highly sensitive, in tune with things unseen. In the now-dark room, she leaned in toward her mother and whispered, “Mama, I need you to tell me what happened. Tell me what’s wrong.”
Suddenly, the room was ablaze with light. Willow’s father stood in the archway, lantern in hand, surveying the scene before him.
“I don’t know what’s wrong,” Willow said, not looking at her father. “When she wasn’t busy in the kitchen with the evening meal preparations, I knew something wasn’t right. We should send for the healer.” He stood, not speaking, still in the same spot. Despite how bright the lantern seemed in the dark room, Willow was unable to read his face in its light. “The healer,” she said again.
“The healer cannot help her,” he said, his voice a hoarse whisper in the room. He cleared his throat. “Nothing will help her now.” His voice was low and strange and Willow felt her chest tighten, her lungs fighting to pull in enough air.
“I…I…I don’t understand,” said Willow, and she felt the first of her tears prick her eyes.
“I will leave you to say your good-byes,” said her father, and Willow sensed fear and sadness in his words, in his voice.
The room plunged back into darkness, her mother’s form a shadow in the room’s near darkness. Willow smoothed her mother’s hair away from her face, her fingers trembling. “Mama?” her voice was small and she barely choked out the single word. “Mama.”
“My Willow.” Her mother’s voice was low but clear.
“The healer,” Willow said again.
“Your father is right,” she said. “The healer can’t help me.”
Willow tried to hold in the sob she felt pushing against the back of her throat. “I don’t understand.” Her voice cracked as did her heart ad the sob escaped, filling the darkness around them.
“You must be strong, my darling. Like the willow tree after which you are called.”
“I don’t–” began Willow.
“What happened is not as important as what I need to tell you,” said her mother, her voice growing weaker with each word.