Revision Hell: Murdering a Character

Do you have a “stock” character in your story who is perilously close to becoming a cliche?  Someone you need for a plot convenience, or simply to show another facet of your protagonist?  Would it matter if you changed the character’s name or sex?  If you simply took the character out of the story, would it really leave a gaping hole, or could you pull the story tighter and really not miss him at all?

As I read through a story for revision, one of the things I’m considering are the side characters.  Are they really needed?  Do they have a goal?  Can I make everything worse for the protagonist by doing something more powerful with the side characters? 

If you have a weak character who’s not pulling his share of the story, here are a few ideas to consider that might help.

Combine characters.  Sometimes you can take several side characters with very minor roles and meld them into one larger character who has several facets and purposes, making them more interesting.  For example, I cut Rhaekhar’s mother out and combined her role as “supporter” into Alea’s character.  This was challenging, because Alea really didn’t like Shannari, my protagonist, at all.  The complexity made Alea’s character richer and tightened the story considerably.

Give the character a stronger goal.  Remember, every character is the star of HIS own story.  He should have a purpose, and if it’s counter to the protagonist’s, even better.  If you have a character who doesn’t really have any goals above “make the plot convenient” or “help the protagonist be the hero” then sit down and do some work. 

  • Consider writing a few scenes in the character’s POV, even if you don’t intend to use his POV in the final story.
  • Get into his head by writing in first person, maybe some key backstory.  How did this character come to be here, for this story? 
  • Give him some contradictions.  If he’s brave, what is he afraid of?  If he’s kind, when would he be mean?
  • Give him something to do that deliberately makes the situation worse for the protagonist.

Rebuild the Character from Scratch.  This one is super hard for me, but sometimes it’s necessary.  I have to envision killing the character, literally, murdering him or her.  Otherwise, I keep doing the same thing that led me into the wrong path in the first place.  I did this once and it was gut-wrenchingly hard.  I murdered Shannari, the protagonist in the Shanhasson series.  I killed her in my mind so I could start all over again, even though I’d already written about 1000 pages in the series.  Only when the old character was dead and buried in my mind, could I start with a new protagonist worthy of carrying the load of the Story I envisioned.

I have a character in Return to Shanhasson who needs some work.  Jorah, the golden Blood, has become a weak character.  You know you have a problem when his only distinguishing characteristic is his size, and I don’t mean how tall he is. 

In this case, I think I’m going back to the original first draft of book two to get an element for Jorah to build upon.  In a very old draft of then titled “Khul’s Beloved,” Jorah did something very graphic that made a stark impression on Shannari.  That scene needs to come back.  If nothing else, it will make him very memorable!

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