Killing off a character: the sad tale

When I tell people about my recent experience of killing off a character I can’t help saying the words with an dramatic flourish. It does seem mythic or monumental. ‘I killed off a character.’

And it did feel big. You’ll know, if you write or read fiction, that characters become real to you. You see them in your mind’s eye; you care about them; they make you weep or fear for their safety.

I really cared about this character in His Other House; she was a vulnerable girl from an unhappy home, a girl seeking safety and comfort. And then… then… I knocked her off.

Why? Because in the end she didn’t serve the story. She was interesting and showed up aspects of other main characters. But not sufficiently to justify her existence. Oh God, that sounds so brutal! I have to remind myself we are talking about a figment of my imagination. (Except that I reckon all my characters stem from some part of me, which is probably why it’s so hard.)

It wasn’t an easy decision to come to. Actually I needed quite a bit of prodding. I received some feedback from a reader and while she didn’t say, 'Get rid of Lauren', she pointed out the ways in which Lauren was not woven into the story.

When I first read this piece of feedback, I thought, 'NO WAY am I getting rid of Lauren.' I loved that Lauren was such a wild card. I loved the way she threw more light on ideas of family and belonging. And – to be frank -  I recoiled from the amount of work involved in removing her.

Then, as my rewrite went on (and on and on) and as I re-read the sections where Lauren appeared, I just couldn't see how to better resolve the Lauren subplot. I tried all sorts of plot contortions and laboured interactions. The harder I tried, the more I thought that perhaps she had to go. I emailed my writing group who had read the earlier manuscript and asked them what they thought. I emailed Pippa, my agent. I talked to Al about it.

Then I killed Lauren off.

If it’s an emotional wrench killing off a beloved character, even more painful is the amount of work involved. It’s big picture work (character and plot) as well as the small picture work of writing dialogue and setting and body language etc.  I had to figure out how to fill the hole she’d left and rewrite entire scenes where she’d appeared.

Once I got in there with my delete key I realised that two chapters revolved around her. They had to go; there was no possible way to keep them. And then I saw that the story was not poorer for losing those chapters. That was a relief.

Next job was to elevate the importance of another character to fill the hole that Lauren had left and I realised that this new character worked much better and the whole story really did weave more tightly now. The fact that I could remove Lauren with so little impact on the story or the other characters was proof that she had to go.  

As I finished up removing all references to her, it occurred to me that she was a character from my next book who’d winkled her way into this novel. The cheek!

I felt much better once I realised that. I'm breathing life back into her now as I work on my third novel.