Shh. Please be quiet. I am killing someone right now and I need to concentrate. This is most definitely pre-meditated – I’ve been thinking about it for weeks. I love her, I really do, but I can’t be around her anymore. I’ve worked through all the pros and cons and, in the end, I can’t let her live. I’ve got it all planned out, though: how to do it, where to start, where to end, how not to get caught. I’ve even worked out her burial plot.
Lest you consider calling 911, I should clarify: I’m killing a character in my novel. And not in the sense of her dying in the middle of the book. I’m excising her existence. By the time this book hits shelves, you won’t even know she was in it, much less that nearly one-third of the original draft was devoted to her and her point of view.
My character in the throes of death is Alice Kilgore, the mother of one of my protagonists, Lucy Kilgore. (Obviously, I won’t be able to completely excise her – Lucy will still have had a mother – but she won’t appear in the book.) Alice is a kick-ass lady – smart, hard working, and puts up with no nonsense. She’s also shrill, inordinately mean, unsupportive, one of three mother figures in the story, and her very presence in the novel – that Lucy has a mother, even a crappy one, to go home to – means that reader after reader keeps questioning why Lucy makes a decision that is crucial to the plot. Plus, Alice turns out to be right and you just don’t want her to be. Don’t we all still reflexively want our mothers to be wrong, especially in those moments when we strongly suspect they are right? Or is that just me?
I struggled with the decision for months. Perhaps, I thought, the answer was to alter her character, make her more supportive, to change her role. But I know this woman. She is diamond hard. Changing that wasn’t an option. Then I worried that taking her out of the story was taking the easy way out. Maybe I was too lazy to do the hard work of character revision.
What I came to realize is that Alice was critical to those original drafts, when this was a different story, one that focused (if you can even use that word about a rambling, perspective-shifting story that spanned two states, three time spans and ten viewpoints) on how one act played out in an entire town. But now, my book is much more narrowly focused – on the characters who are on either side of that devastating act. The book is much better for it. Excising Alice will narrow that focus even further and immediately make Lucy’s emotions and decisions that much more sympathetic and understandable.
It’s a loss, though. It might sound crazy, but it took me so long to get to this decision because I was mourning her loss. I love her strength, her flintiness, her knowledge of her own flaws and her inability to admit them to other people. I especially love a scene from late in the first draft of my book where she meets a man who loves all those things and call her on them too. (I am a sucker for good, strong, challenging relationships between two sass mouths.) But, you can’t keep a character in your novel for one nice scene that is no longer crucial to the novel as it stands now.
Maybe Alice’s story is a different novel. Or maybe it’s a short story. I am quite sure she will live to see another day, but it won’t be as a character in this book. And that’s okay – killing characters is part of the game. The trick is knowing when, how and why to do it and making sure you plan, execute and cover up all the evidence.
Just like any perfect murder, really.
A moment of silence for all of the fictional mothers that had to die in the name of tragic back story and character development.
— Professor Snape (@_Snape_) May 12, 2014