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Do You Need to Kill Off That Character of Yours?

With last week’s Writing Rule being #13, I made sure to stress that it wasn’t scary.

But #14? Sorry to say this, but I have no such guarantees.

Depending on how far along you are in your story, Writing Rule #14 could cut pretty deep. In fact, it might lead to murder – with you holding the knife.

If you’re one of those sociopathic writers who loves to spend pages and pages making readers connect with a character, only to purposely kill him off with a wicked smile on your face, hold your apocalyptic horses. That’s not what I’m referring to.

I’m talking about characters you may have written that serve no actual purpose to the storyline.

Consider this:

Every character you mention in your story needs to serve some purpose, whether it’s to drive the whole entire plot, help something along, or establish something new or important.

Don’t waste your time or your readers’ time on “filler” characters, which simply take up space. Just focus your creative energy on making the characters that do matter as vivid and believable as possible.

I ran into this kind of issue years ago with a dear friend’s manuscript. She’s truly a talented and engaging writer, but even truly talented and engaging writers have issues they struggle with. There’s no shame in that, especially when you’re still in the draft-writing and -editing stages.

Her chicklit story featured this one character – let’s call him Tom – who was stereotypical from start to finish. Flamboyantly expressive with lines like “Oh honey, you are so working that Dolce & Gabbana,” he danced in and out of the story with his good looks and impeccable fashion taste at seemingly random intervals.

Sometimes Tom did serve as a sounding board for the main character, and sometimes he tripped through a plot point. But he never seemed to do so in a particularly necessary way. As a reader, much less an editor, the one thing I could really ever say about him was that he never did anything that some other character couldn’t do as well or better.

In short, the story didn’t actually need him.

As a creative writer, when you’ve established a personality like that, you have one of two choices: Either cut him out completely or make him more indispensable. In deciding which direction to go, you have three important questions to ask yourself:

  • How much work will it take to cut him out?

  • How much work will it take to make him meaningful?

  • How much am I personally attached to him?

In my friend’s case, it could have gone either way, particularly because I do know she liked Tom. It’s kinda hard not to form some kind of a bond with a character you’ve written, detailed and named. So she ultimately decided to improve him and his standing in the story instead of killing him off completely and removing any trace that he ever existed.

Her choice to take some kind of action in this regard improved the story significantly.

I know in one of my current manuscripts, I have a minor character that I might need to cut as well. I don’t want to cut her. Not at all. Yet the work it would take to leave her in might not be worth it in the end.

I’m not saying those kinds of cuts are easy steps to take. But if it ultimately makes your story stronger and your writing more enjoyable, isn’t it worth it?

Unfortunately for any unnecessary characters out there, the answer is probably yes.

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