“In writing you must kill your darlings.” Many heard this quote, attributed to William Faulkner, relating to the need to delete words and phrases we are particularly proud of. We love the characters we invent and the thought of eliminating them, after we have poured so much work into their creation, is heartbreaking. But sometimes it must be done.
The first character I removed was Uncle Wilhelm, in an early draft of what later became my first novel, The Dog in the Wood. He had arrived at Fritz’s grandma’s farm in December 1945, after the Russian military police had taken Fritz’s mother and left him and his sister to live with the hated grandma. Uncle Wilhelm, a World War One veteran, who had lost his left arm fighting the French, was a jolly old fellow. I had placed him in the story at the moment of greatest pain for Fritz. He was supposed to give solace and help my protagonist get through his hardship. When I re-read my manuscript I realized that it was not yet time for Fritz to be consoled. He had to face the pain and then ultimately find the strength within himself to do something about his situation. Instead of finding comfort in the presence of an old, friendly relative, he had to turn his fear and rage into action. I learned that the main character always has to carry the book’s action.
Deleting all scenes with Mummo, the Finnish grandmother of Wren in my work-in-progress, For The Birds, taught me not to be too preachy. Mummo was full of good advice. I had so much fun putting clever words into her mouth and inventing Finnish proverbs she would use to share her wisdom. But I realized my readers would find her preaching tiresome.
Removing Mummo also taught me another lesson. An eccentric personality can enrich a story but it is hard for a larger-than-life-character to stay in a supporting role. Mummo was overshadowing my protagonist, Wren, another reason she had to go. Instead, I had to give Wren more of the now departed grandmother’s courage and wit. The lesson here: Be careful not to let secondary characters take over your story. Make sure you keep in mind whose story you are telling.
In early drafts of Saraswati’s Way, 12-year-old Akash, who runs away from home and becomes a street child in New Delhi, had more friends. Through my revisions I realized that I didn’t need so many different people to show Akash’s traits and reactions to events. I focused on only one main friend and strengthened the scenes and the interactions between these two characters. The old adage, less is more, is also true for the number of supporting cast in your book.
The ability to remove characters from a manuscript during the revision process is a very important skill for any writer. Open yourself to the possibility. It can be liberating and improve your writing.
Monika Schroder’s author website: www.monikaschroeder.com
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