Letting your characters go

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-image-sad-dog-image5373616I’ve checked the proofs of my new novel. The stack of pages is ready to bundle up and send back to my editor. I’ve had my last opportunity to make corrections, and I’ve made my final farewell to the characters – THE CALLER is the third and final book in the SHADOWFELL series. Seems like time for a celebratory glass of champagne, yes? But I don’t feel elated, I feel sad. Why is it so hard to say goodbye?

After seventeen novels, I should understand  the perils of getting too attached to the characters of a book or series. Twice in the past, the vagaries of the publishing world have forced me to end a series earlier than I originally intended, a painful experience for both writer and readers.

What makes the key players in this particular series – the quietly strong Neryn, the intense, morally conflicted Flint, the driven rebel Tali, not to speak of their supporting cast of uncanny folk – so special?

I’ve seen these characters through exhilarating highs and desperate lows. Triumph and disaster; hope and heartbreak. I’ve put hours of thought, hard work and dedication into creating them. I’ve walked a very long way in their shoes. But, of course, it’s not just these characters, it’s the cast of every book I write. Every time, it’s hard to let go. Chances are all of you who write fiction feel exactly the same when you complete a project.

What can we do to ease the pain of parting?

Start the next story
Get going quickly on your next project and get to know your new characters. They will quickly work their way as close to your heart/mind/spirit as the old ones did. If the new characters are in dramatic contrast with the old ones,  so much the better! My new project features a pair of central characters quite unlike any I have written before and I love them already. I was already working on the new series while proof-reading THE CALLER, and it did help.

Give your favourites a new lease on life
If your readers loved those characters as much as you did, you could go back to them in short stories or a novella. I filled in a missing thread of family history from my six-book Sevenwaters series with a novella. Since ebooks allow the stand-alone publication of quite short works, this is more feasible than ever. You could provide these as exclusive downloads from your author website.

Spin-off series
Is there a secondary character in your series who’s itching to be the main protagonist of a different project? There might be a whole new creative venture just waiting to be born.

Prequel or sequel
Perhaps your story isn’t really finished? Could your trilogy become a four book series? Might there be scope for a prequel?

Pay due respect to your achievement and move on
Sometimes it really is time to move on. Send off the proofs and put the whole thing out of your mind for a while. Do something else. By the time the book appears on the shelves at your local retailer, or on the website of an online store, you will have completely forgotten what you were feeling so sad about.

Please note: your characters are not Gone For Ever when the manuscript is finished. Because of  your creative efforts they live on, not only in your imagination, but in that of everyone who reads your book. If that’s not something to celebrate, it should be!

Does finishing a project make you feel sad? How do you deal with it?

Photo credit:
© Jolita Marcinkene | Dreamstime.com



About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written nineteen novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Juliet's new novel, Tower of Thorns, will be published in October/November 2015. Tower of Thorns is the second book in the Blackthorn & Grim series of historical fantasy/mysteries for adult readers. The first Blackthorn & Grim novel, Dreamer's Pool, is available from Roc US and Pan Macmillan Australia.


  1. says

    Not sad. Elated. By the end of my first story, my characters (and some secondaries) had gained dimension and timber and my respect and affection so I went on to do a dozen more with the same basic cast. Although other stories and characters have come to life in the interim, Josh and Dana are alive and well and likely to stumble into more adventurous situations requiring resolution. They live!

  2. says

    The very obvious comparison is to letting your human babies go. Cutting the cord is sometimes the hardest thing to do. Sometimes, letting the baby go is even harder than nurturing it, loving and raising it.

    The good news is that writing allows you both time and space to continue the process of creation. As a writer you create your own universe, and hard as the creation process is, it is at least free of biological limitations.

    Congratulations on putting another book to bed. And thank you for the tips on easing the pains of separation. That also holds true for both worlds — the (real) imagined world and the (real) real world.

  3. says

    How interesting this post is, Juliet. I like “They Live,” Alex. I do have this letting-go trauma when I finish that final edit of a story. Sometimes it’s sad; other times it’s a relief. I’m more the “move on” type. I often need down time to let the well fill up again before starting another story. I think that’s important because creativity is so demanding and writing such hard work. I like to give myself a vacation of sorts and a glass of champagne to toast my characters entering the world without me. Little rituals can be a springboard to opening up to create a new story.

  4. says

    I was recently thinking about this exact thing, Juliet. I’ll add after some time passes and you are missing your characters, simply go back and read the book. I also did your suggestion about writing the novella. I took my characters from several novels and put the women together at a women’s resort in Hawaii in THE LAST RESORT. Readers loved getting to catch up with what had happened and of course it eased the “whatever happened to” in my own mind!

  5. Robin Yaklin says

    Last night at a workshop one of the participants spoke of how she procrastinates as she gets near the end of a book because she doesn’t want it to end. I say what a compliment to the author. Reversing that, not wanting to let them go seems as if you really enjoyed them. Just think how ichy it would be to not like them and still have to make their story happen.

    P.S.: the dog is adorable.

  6. says

    Love this post! I’m working on the third book in my first series (the final book) and I haven’t even gotten close to the “letting go” part. I think I’m in a smidgen of denial about it…like I won’t “really” have to let go. But I know I should. I could always go back and do novellas or something with these characters, but I’m looking forward to wrapping up and moving onto new projects.

  7. says

    I love my characters, but I fear I am a promiscuous characteriser – there are more characters in my head than I can fit into my stories. A character and a situation leap into my head very easily, and I find I know almost everything there is to know about that character – date and place of birth, family background, occupation, interests, sexual orientation, hobbies and much else. So while I love best the characters I’m working with at any given time, I don’t mind letting them go because all their friends and relations are jumping about in my head saying ‘pick me next, pick me next!’

  8. says

    Good post, Juliet. You mention the vagaries of publishing making you close a series earlier than you intended. Well, authors have more control now – perhaps we should press on and publish the next novel in our series as independents. Publishers don’t always call it right – JK Rowling/Galbraith?
    Congrats on your output btw. Great perseverance.

  9. says

    A wonderful post and great advice. Thank you. My characters came to life inside me and no matter what there’ll always be a place within for them, though it won’t be the same. Thankfully that day isn’t yet upon me.

  10. says

    I’ve been at this over thirty years, and I can tell you that characters never really go away. They are like friends who have moved but stop by for an occasional visit in a dream in the day or night.

    Or they will stop by when things are really rough to remind me that they survived and so can I.

  11. says

    Lovely post, Juliet, and congratulations on finishing The Caller! Having just finished Raven Flight, I am *hugely* looking forward to reading the final chapter in Neryn, Flint, Tali, and all the other wonderful characters’ story.

    As for me, I cope with the sadness of parting by working to make sure I absolutely love everything about my books’ endings. I mean, I’m sure that’s true of all authors– we all want to make every part of our book the best it can be. But for me, making sure that I truly love the place I’ve left my characters in helps immeasurably with saying goodbye.

    • says

      Great comment, Anna! I agree about crafting the ending – if the writer is completely satisfied with it, that makes it much easier to accept that the story/series is finished. I am very satisfied with the way I wrapped up the Shadowfell series and with where I left my central characters.

  12. says

    Great post! Though, please, if you write a prequel or a sequel, make sure you do it for the sake of the story and not just the characters. The story still has to be good on its own. No one wants to read an awesome trilogy only to hate whatever prequel or sequel or stick on there just because.

    • says

      I agree, Jessica. There was a point in my writing history where I was persuaded to continue a series (Sevenwaters) that I thought I had finished. That was the only time when I succumbed to publisher pressure on this point. However, I did work hard to make it a project I genuinely believed in, and the result was well received and well reviewed. Sometimes compromise is necessary.

      In general I do subscribe to the idea that a person should write the story she feels passionately about, and set aside other considerations! But if it comes to the difference between managing to pay the bills or not, the decision is not an easy one.

  13. says

    It can be hard to let the characters go, but I’ve found, when their story is told, they fade away into the background, content to let you move one, happy their story is out there. That’s how I know when the story/series is done.

  14. says

    Great tips! I just started a new project (a sequel) and already, I know that the new character who fascinates me so much needs to die at the end. I’m thinking I’m going to have to do a prequel or short stories or something to keep exploring his character, because I’m sure I won’t be able to let him go when the novel is done.

  15. Tristi Mullett says

    Thus far I haven’t managed a novel finish, but I’ve finished short stories. Some of those characters have more stories to tell me, one I was able to let go because his story finished and he was in a much better place. But Goat will always have a special place in my heart as my first male protagonist, and the hardest story to rip out of my soul. Sometimes letting them fly free is our greatest reward.

  16. says

    I’m bracing myself to kill off a couple of characters in the third and last book of a series. I feel ambivalent. These guys are part of me, and I’m part of them. And yet even they know we all gotta go sometime. Still not sure which ones.

  17. says

    One advantage of being slow, and of working on multiple projects at the same time, is that I don’t think I’ll go through full-blown regret. I’ve already had the experience of carrying these characters around in my head for years so that they always feel present, even if I’m not spending a ton of time with them on the page.

  18. says

    Juliet! Your work has inspired me in so, SO many ways. How exciting to read this post!! I finished my second novel this past December, and was very surprised to find myself very depressed afterwards. It is nearly impossible to not feel that way after having worked so hard and so long on characters who are so close to you. But you are completely right – I fortunately found inspiration for a new novel, launched into it in January, and watched my depression seep away. I think it is a good sign when these feelings come upon completion of a story, though – it only proves the writer’s dedication to her story and the depth to which she allowed herself to be involved with it – two very good things. Again, thank you so much!

  19. says

    i’ve enjoyed putting a multi-generational cast of characters together so much, i seem to keep finding short stories (fitting in all kinds of time frames) that enhance the main novel stories

    i do believe ebook technology, and the sort of “seasons” of fav tv shows, have helped release writers into a much broader basis than when print was the only option

    so, meantime, best wishes everyone ;-)

  20. says

    Thank you for the suggestions. I confess to feeling flat and lonely at the end of writing a novel and can’t wait to begin the next one to either continue with old friends or make new ones.

    The suggestion I like most is a spin-off series, as some of the secondary characters have a depth that SHOUTS to be told in more detail. And one thing I’m promising myself is that I’ll arrange the completion of my novels for an Australian summer rather than winter. It’s a lot easier to bear when one can head off to the beach or out in the kayak!

    Bookmarking this excellent post for reference for the future.

    Oh and PS: there are always the dogs…

  21. says

    How fantastic are your ideas? I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am so happy to say good-bye to my characters and it is just two weeks after finishing my first novel. Why is that? Because I’m doing what you said to do up there in this post. It was sad when it ended — I particularly missed the one character that I hated for most of the two-point-five years it took to write my first novel–until I started doing these other things like starting a totally new story and a sequel. Or, maybe, I am not sad to let go of the characters because the first novel is different? Writing a novel is so new & confusing a grind & much more work than you ever thought it would be when you got your “little, great idea” in the first place that its like “na na na na na na na na hey hey hey goo-ood bye” and don’t let the door slam as when you leave? I was too thrilled to be done to care about what the protagonist Louisa was doing after I put the novel in the mail. But I could see how it could happen, to miss it. I could see it. Maybe.

  22. says

    I have actually had a deep aching sadness when I’ve completed a book – where I’ll miss the characters, miss listening to them, feeling their emotions, peeking into their lives, so much that I even feel disconnected and lonely. It’s a bad side-effect of living as reclusively as I do in this mountain cove.