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Letting Go

Flickr Creative Commons: Andrew Mitchell
Flickr Creative Commons: Andrew Mitchell

It may be time to kill one of your characters. I don’t mean giving them a sudden heart attack or a misstep in front of a bus. I mean if you’re stuck, really stuck, on a scene or plot point and have been for a while, it may be that one of your characters just doesn’t belong in this book, and needs to be written out.

Maybe you’re thinking, but I love him/her. That’s what I thought a few years ago, when I wrote a beloved youngest child out of my second novel (and my protagonist’s life). Or maybe you’re thinking, Thank God. I really have no idea who this character is anyway, which is what I thought last week when I wrote my protagonist’s current husband out of my novel. Or maybe you’re thinking, Hmm. How do I know? which is what I think several times a day when I’m in the early stages of a book.

“Killing your darlings” doesn’t always mean killing beloved sentences and paragraphs, or doing away with brilliant plot twists that go off-track. Sometimes, it means letting go of a character you’ve thought about and written about and crafted for months. I have done this with every novel, and in every case it’s made the book better—tighter, more focused, richer. But how do you know if and when a character has to go?

When writing dialogue for that character feels like a chore. I don’t know about you, but for me, writing dialogue flows pretty freely. When I write dialogue I often feel as though I’m transcribing the words to a conversation I’m witnessing—only the conversation is taking place in my head. One character wouldn’t be caught dead swearing; another can barely get through three sentences without tossing in a swear word. One character talks in short, staccato rhythm; another tends to over-explain. One character interrupts often; another is fond of long silences between statements. I know when I get stuck writing dialogue, it’s because I can’t hear a character’s voice distinctly, and if I can’t do that, there’s a problem.

When your story still works even if that character isn’t in it. Look at your outline or—if you’re a pantser like me—look at wherever your plot has brought you thus far. Do all your main characters play an important role in the story? How would the story be different if you cut out that character? How would your protagonist be different if that person wasn’t in his/her life? If the answer is “not much,” try writing through a chapter or two without that character. Cutting extraneous characters forces you to focus more intensely on the characters you do have in the story, to make each one of them richly alive. The characters surrounding your protagonist are there to reveal who your protagonist is (both to the reader and to herself), to support, antagonize, love, hate, push, pull, follow, and otherwise interact with your protagonist in the same ways the important people in your life interact with you. But each and every one of them still deserves to be a fully fleshed out individual.

If you can’t feel at least some of what he/she is feeling. I’m a middle-aged woman. But I’ve written from the point of view of an 80-year-old woman, a 10-year-old boy, a 12-year-old girl, a 39-year-old woman, etc. But even if I can’t relate to a character’s age, occupation, gender, looks, or personality, I can relate to feeling grief-stricken, or anxious, or over-joyed, or terrified. I’ve never been an 80-year-old botanist and world explorer, but I created one in my second novel that’s one of the most memorable and believable characters I’ve ever written. I knew that character because I know what it’s like to feel impatient with people who don’t say what they mean, or to love someone fiercely and be furious with them at the same time. If you can’t imagine what your character is thinking and feeling in a scene, you may want to rethink your character. It doesn’t even matter if your character is human. In Lauren Groff’s novel The Monsters of Templeton, she writes about a Loch Ness-like monster that lives in a lake in upstate New York. In the final chapter, she writes from the monster’s point of view, whenever it finds someone who has drowned in the lake: “and how the monster loves them, those pretty unmoving people, takes them and strokes their hair like moss and holds their smoothness to its chest…” I like that monster. I know that monster; I’ve felt that protective urge toward vulnerable creatures, too.

Do you know all your characters? Do they all belong in your book?

About Kathleen McCleary [1]

Kathleen McCleary is the author of three novels—House and Home, A Simple Thing, and Leaving Haven—and has worked as a bookseller, bartender, and barista (all great jobs for gathering material for fiction). A Simple Thing (HarperCollins 2012) was nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. She was a journalist for many years before turning to fiction, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and USA Weekend, as well as HGTV.com, where she was a regular columnist. She taught writing as an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and teaches creative writing to kids ages 8-18 as an instructor with Writopia Labs, a non-profit. She also offers college essay coaching (http://thenobleapp.com), because she believes that life is stressful enough and telling stories of any kind should be exciting and fun. When she's not writing or coaching writing, she looks for any excuse to get out into the woods or mountains or onto a lake. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two daughters and Jinx the cat.