“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
--Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, “On the Art of Writing” (1916)
This weekend, I killed Pete. Pete was my go-to character for comic relief; the best friend of my introverted leading man, Marco; the love interest of a secondary character, Sookie; and my homage to all the high school kids whose eccentricity, earnestness, and kindness make the world (especially the world of high school) a more livable place. Succinctly, Pete was my “character-darling.”
But there was a problem with Pete. Unlike the many other characters that populate my WIP, Pete did not actively further the plot and was more like a condiment—a lovely and entirely expendable delight. And so he died on a Friday morning and was buried on a Friday afternoon. (Nobody attended his funeral except for his fictional friends and me.) And then, on Saturday, he was resurrected as a character named Boone.
So now you’re thinking, that’s not exactly murdering your darlings, Carmen. You’re right. It’s not. But here’s something I realized in the process of "killing" Pete. (And by "killing" Pete, I simply mean, editing him out of the storyline so that he never existed,--a character erasure, not a true killing.) While Pete, in his current incarnation, was unnecessary to my story, my instinct for a character like Pete was not. This book—a contemporary YA novel that’s a bit of a dramedy—needs a character like Pete but not Pete exactly.
When I killed Pete, removing him from his role as Marco’s best friend and confidant, I made a smart choice. Marco’s passages were already light. If anything, his storyline needs more shadow. Meanwhile Sally, who narrates the rest of the story, desperately needs a character like Pete to bring her into the light. The solution was clear: Transplant Pete’s heart into Boone, Sally’s older brother who would leave college to “supervise” the demise of their parents’ marriage and (from a practical, behind-the-scenes perspective) add new energy to Sally’s arc.
Within hours of the transplant, Sally’s storyline experienced a positive shift. While Sally is the type of character to stay home, cringing over her parents’ constant fighting, Boone is the type to urge an escape. In Boone’s initial scene, it became clear that he would force Sally to leave the warzone and seize the night. The subsequent scene adds much-needed levity to the storyline and reveals a new, dare I say joyful side of Sally. Boone balances Sally (among other things), and the ripple of that balance is felt throughout the entire book.
Overall, this alteration will have a massive impact on my WIP. That doesn’t mean, however, that the choice is without fallout. Pete’s death has resulted in the loss of thousands of words and numerous scenes. Still, his resurrection as Boone imbues the project with more viable possibilities. And that’s what you want in a character, primary or secondary—opportunities for conflict, resolution, and movement. Murdering Pete gave me all that. May he rest in peace.
Examine your character-darlings. Are any expendable or fusible? If so, what would happen to your WIP if you let that character—at least, in a current incarnation—go? Give it a shot and share your results or thoughts in the comments section below.
P.S. In the last few posts, we discussed procrastination and its companion, perfectionism. This video addresses the link in an interesting way. What do you think about its assertions?