Cristy Burne


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5 signs of an extraneous character: writing out Ruby

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?