While Takeshita Demons is ticking away in the background I’ve hauled an old manuscript out from the bottom drawer and been working to polish it. The book’s called Beyond the Safe Zone and it’s longer than Takeshita Demons, and maybe scarier too, with zombies, a walled community and children living in a post-apocalyptic world.
I wrote it a couple of years ago and it’s been through a few revisions, but with the current trend towards the supernatural in children’s fiction (vampires and werewolves, anyone?), now is a good time to embrace the children’s zombie novel and make this book work.
The biggest and most recent change to the story is the “death” of my protagonist’s best friend, a character I called Ruby. Except that Ruby didn’t really die. I killed her. I tapped on keys and buttons until any reference to Ruby was utterly gone. Ruby has left the manuscript. She was boring, and we don’t miss her.
So why? What might possess an author to write-out or delete a character? How do you know if your own manuscript is harbouring an entirely useless two-dimensional space-sucker?
I ran through this checklist:
1 Does the character have his/her own distinct role?
Ruby was like Batman’s Robin…a bit unnecessary. Superman doesn’t have a Robin. Spiderman doesn’t have a Robin. What’s so special about Batman? By the end of the book I realised my protagonist didn’t need a best friend; she already had a brother and they acted like best friends. Ruby brought nothing new or exciting top the story. Goodbye Ruby.
2 Does the character grow or learn during the novel?
All characters, not just main characters, should grow. They should move through personal challenges, meet with failures, work through tensions. In the lingo of fiction, they should have a unique “story arc.” Ruby had nothing. She just wandered along, following the rest of them. Goodbye Ruby.
3 Does the character have the required number of dimensions? (Three, in case you were wondering ;-))
Was Ruby afraid of mice? Did she like jam sandwiches? Did she dream of being free? Did she carry secret hatreds? Dunno. She just liked to hang out with the other kids and be a sounding board for other people’s dialogue. Boring. Goodbye Ruby.
4 Does the character ever spend quality time alone with the protagonist?
Ruby was always a hanger-on-er. She had nothing secret to share, no great wisdom to impart. She didn’t really experience a bonding moment or play an essential role. She had no real reason to exist. Goodbye Ruby.
5 Will the character leave a space in the story if they leave?
I took a hard look at my manuscript and realised: no one would miss Ruby, not even me! Killing her off was sometimes hard, but mostly exciting, and now that she’s gone, I can’t believe she was ever there. She left no space. Goodbye Ruby.
It took a lot of courage and energy to go through my entire manuscript and hunt for bits that didn’t work, but the rewards have been great. Beyond the Safe Zone is much tighter and more exciting now that Ruby’s been dismantled. Here’s hoping Ruby’s demise is a good thing for the book’s future!
Have you ever edited out a character? Or performed major surgery on an old story to create a new and better story? Was it painful? Successful? Did it help you get published?
April 14, 2010 at 12:20 pm
Genevieve, that’s fabulous! Even better than editing them out is discovering they’re integral in some secret way you never realised. What a buzz. I love it when stories do that 🙂
April 14, 2010 at 11:50 am
As an addendum to my last comment, I ended up keeping those characters in the story. Instead, I re-worked the entire ending, and whaddayaknow? They were absolutely mandatory for making it work.
February 28, 2010 at 12:43 pm
Thank you, thank you, THANK you. I have been looking for backup on this – I have 2 characters who have done very little to move the story along, though personally, I find them interesting. It’ll take some doing, because they popped in and out of the plot, but I think you’re right. Goodbye Annette & Seamus.
September 8, 2009 at 11:37 am
Since I read the synopsis I am desperate to read Beyond the Safe Zone, it sounds absolutely fab.
September 2, 2009 at 9:37 am
Wow…I had no idea so many characters were Robin! (That caped disguise really works!)… Yes, perhaps I was a little hard on the Boy Wonder. Poor Ruby wasn’t close to being an Anything Wonder.
And thanks Gordon…good food for thought there. I’ve never added a character, but erased quite a few. In my first MS, One Weekend with Killiecrankie, two cookie cutter baddies ended up being one more intricate baddie… But I like the idea of adding a character. How do you know when to do that? (A good post for your blog?)(please ;-))
September 1, 2009 at 5:12 pm
Great post, and very brave of you to totally erase a character like that! I don’t think I could bring myself to do it in one of my books – I tend to add people in rather than take them away! Good luck with the book, it sounds brilliant!
September 1, 2009 at 5:04 pm
Good choice, a bit unfair on Robin though, none of the Robin characters were ever unnecessary. If he (she) was we wouldn’t need Jason Todd, Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown or Damian Wayne (all the characters who have been Robin) once Dick Grayson had stopped being the Boy Wonder.