Give Them the Axe?

“Unbeing dead isn’t being alive.”
~E.E. Cummings~

I was chatting with my friend, TD, about one of the characters in the novel I am working on.  We were discussing the killing off of said character and at this time, I have no plans to annihilate this being. I’m quite fond of him and he’s essential to the well-being of another major individual in the book. This leads me to a couple of other conversations I would like to share with you.

My oldest daughter is trying her wings at writing. She had a character who, for all practical purposes, was a red shirt and she didn’t know what to do with her.  When it comes to characters, one of the most vital things you have to ask yourself is, “What purpose do they serve?” I asked her that to help her figure out how to “get rid of her.”

If they are just there to take up space and don’t help to push the story along, they are a red shirt. If they have have a bearing on another character, provide insight into a situation, but don’t have a major contribution to the plot/story, then they are a minor charactor. These individuals need to have some depth to them, but you don’t have to know everything about them. Your major characters are central to the story and need to be fully flushed out. You need to know them and know them well. You need to know what makes them tick, what makes their hearts go bump in the middle of the night and why they do the things they do. My daughter was trying to make her red shirt into a minor character, who didn’t really serve a purpose other than die. Seriously. By rewriting the scene and leaving this individual as a red shirt, the emotional response by the main character rang authentic. Boom! That’s how it’s done.

Another friend of mine is a fabulous writer. She has the art of paring down characters to an art form. She’s on her second novel and I sometimes howl in delight with the way she is able to craft things. After she got rid of a lot of the unessential cast. As a result, her writing is much tighter and many scenes are either 1) much funnier or 2) more poignant. Isn’t that what we all strive for?

There are many, many works where characters are killed off – whether on the page, the stage or screen. I think Shakespeare actually ENJOYED killing off his characters – it seemed as though someone always died in his plays.  Television has had it’s own share of characters who have bitten the big one, moves that have stunned audiences around the globe. (Thinking back now to who shot JR…)  These deaths can sometimes feel forced and contrived so care must be taken when eradicating a beloved character – especially a major character.

<SPOILER> One of my favorite characters who was obilterated was Professor Snape in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Love him or hate him, his demise was masterfully crafted.  Unlike a redshirt, he was a major player and without him, Harry Potter wouldn’t have achieved what he did or become who he did.  (And also using Rowling’s Potter Series… she did her own fair share of killing off of characters, but over seven books, I think she was allowed.)

Before cancelling your character’s life-check, ask yourself what purpose he/she serves – Major, minor or red shirt? Once you have that figured out, the rest should be a little easier to write.

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