#40: When to Kill a Character

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m writing again on my fantasy novel! Your advice about one of my other characters gave some great ideas about making her more proactive. This time I’m writing because I’m seriously thinking I need to axe a character.

I love her character and especially her backstory. I do have a bit of a hard time with her voice, but that’s something I think I could strengthen in revisions.

I’ve toyed with cutting her before, and it’s come up again now that I’m writing an Important Scene for her arc (a Setback). I just can’t make the dramatic tension come together. And when I look back and compare her arc to the other characters’ arcs, it’s much more reactive and plot-driven and contains less actual growth/change. She’s mainly a helping character, and I already have another character whose plot role is largely thwarting/helping the main characters—and the other character gets more character growth out of it. As I conceive of her character now, her character arc occurred more in her past, and now she’s at the place where the other characters are moving toward.

She serves a function in the plot of getting a character from place to place, and she serves as a POV character particularly in a location where none of the other POV characters are. She also is the primary worker of magic in the novel, and without her there’s very little of it (which may be fine, it would just change things). I think I could work around her plot/POV functions by moving other characters and possibly not showing some of these events on screen at all.

And if I do decide to axe her, how on earth do I tackle that? I’m still finishing up the draft. Do you think it makes sense to go forward as if she’s not a character or sort of minimize the whole thing and tackle all of it in revisions?

So I guess I have a two-part question:
1) How do you decide whether to axe characters?
2) If I do axe her, how do I approach the final drafting and then the daunting task of revising her out of the story?

—chocolate tort (she/her)

Dear chocolate tort,

Nice to hear from you again! I’m glad my earlier advice was helpful.

This time around you’ve sent me a classic advice-column letter of the “Should I break up with my partner?” variety. The answer is almost always yes, because by the time you reach the point of writing to an advice columnist, you’ve probably made up your mind to do the deed, and are just looking for external confirmation. I note that you didn’t ask me anything like “How can I keep this character while fixing the problems she creates?”; you went straight for “If I remove her from the book, how do I do it?” This is something like saying “Should I dump my girlfriend, and if I do, do you think email or a text is better?”

There’s nothing wrong with having a side character who exists mostly to help and doesn’t have much of a growth arc, but you’re clearly unhappy with having her in the book, and your happiness as an author matters. It’s also important to trust your writing instincts. So if the answer you wanted to hear from me is “Yes, axe the character” then I’m happy to provide that answer, but I really think you’re the one who reached that conclusion first, and I’m simply supporting you in your decision.

Adding or subtracting a character in the middle of creating a lengthy work is nearly as challenging as breaking up with a longtime life-entangled partner. Fortunately, unlike the breakup scenario, you’ve got all the power. Let’s leave that analogy behind and look at your options.

While you’re finishing the draft, I recommend keeping what you’ve written as intact as possible. The clearest way to do that is to complete the book with that character in it—which may include writing a terrible unsatisfying draft of that climactic scene while muttering a constant monologue of “I will fix it in revisions”— and then reread the whole thing and see whether she does in fact need to be excised. I bet this is the last thing you wanted to hear. But frankly, this sudden urge to respond to one difficult scene by completely rearranging your book’s furniture sounds a lot like a procrastination or avoidance technique to me. If you’re at the stage where you’re writing climactic scenes, you may be deep in the three-quarters slump. Have a cup of tea and do some soul-searching. If what’s really going on here is that you would rather tear apart your entire manuscript than finish it, it’s time to gird your loins and finish the book.

If you really can’t see a way forward from where you are now, then I recommend replacing the character with multiple minor characters who collectively serve the same functions. This gets around the problem of lack of arc and character growth, and lets you keep many of your scenes with just some name-changing. (Do that by hand if possible; automated search-and-replace on that scale is risky.) For example, if in one scene she helps people by doing magic and in another she helps them by reminding them of what they’re working toward, you can replace her with two characters, a mage and a role model. Or keep her on as a mage, but bring in a role model to take over her inspirational tasks.

From what I can tell, the problem with your character is that her personal arc is not intrinsically satisfying; you don’t mention any problems with the function she serves in the plot. Breaking her up into several minor characters solves the former problem while not messing with the latter. The less time a character spends in the spotlight, the less the reader will care about whether they experience emotional growth and change.

You mention possibly moving in other existing characters to take over some of her functions, but those characters already have their parts to play, and changing them will set off a cascade of issues. You also want to make it fairly easy to put her back in if you finish the book and find it really needs her, or if there’s no way to make those scenes work without the same person being in all of them. And you want a process that requires as little work as possible because you are not yet done with your book and that means you need to stay focused on writing, not revising. Splitting this character into two or three characters is the best approach to meet those needs.

Having done that: finish the book. Finish the book. Fiiiniiiish yoooour boooooook. Do your best to let go of your self-criticism and your anxiety and keep forging onward. Everything will get better when you type “the end” and have a finished manuscript to work on. I believe in you! Keep going. Finish your book.

Happy writing!


Story Nurse

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3 thoughts on “#40: When to Kill a Character

  1. Oh! That was a surprise! When I saw the post title, I thought it was going to be about how to kill off a character within a story–that is, when and how to depict their death, and how to move on from there.

    Could that be a solution to the LW’s problem here? If there’s no way forward for this character and she’s creating problems, but you don’t want to reconstruct the whole manuscript, could you take the TV writer’s way out and kill her off?


  2. Jo: Now THERE is something I had not thought of either! That’s a very interesting thought.

    Story Nurse: Right on, as always! Love the analogy to the classic advice-column letter–yes, I am at the breakup stage. I can see that now. A very hurried ending has been slapped on, and now I am very intrigued by the thought of breaking up her role among some minor characters. I think that could work really well and keep the focus where I want it.

    I like this character so much, I may have to give her a cameo or write a whole other story where she appears. But for now, I have a better idea of how to move forward, so thank you!


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