#40: When to Kill a Character

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m writing again on my fantasy novel! Your advice about one of my other characters gave some great ideas about making her more proactive. This time I’m writing because I’m seriously thinking I need to axe a character.

I love her character and especially her backstory. I do have a bit of a hard time with her voice, but that’s something I think I could strengthen in revisions.

I’ve toyed with cutting her before, and it’s come up again now that I’m writing an Important Scene for her arc (a Setback). I just can’t make the dramatic tension come together. And when I look back and compare her arc to the other characters’ arcs, it’s much more reactive and plot-driven and contains less actual growth/change. She’s mainly a helping character, and I already have another character whose plot role is largely thwarting/helping the main characters—and the other character gets more character growth out of it. As I conceive of her character now, her character arc occurred more in her past, and now she’s at the place where the other characters are moving toward.

She serves a function in the plot of getting a character from place to place, and she serves as a POV character particularly in a location where none of the other POV characters are. She also is the primary worker of magic in the novel, and without her there’s very little of it (which may be fine, it would just change things). I think I could work around her plot/POV functions by moving other characters and possibly not showing some of these events on screen at all.

And if I do decide to axe her, how on earth do I tackle that? I’m still finishing up the draft. Do you think it makes sense to go forward as if she’s not a character or sort of minimize the whole thing and tackle all of it in revisions?

So I guess I have a two-part question:
1) How do you decide whether to axe characters?
2) If I do axe her, how do I approach the final drafting and then the daunting task of revising her out of the story?

—chocolate tort (she/her)

Dear chocolate tort,

Nice to hear from you again! I’m glad my earlier advice was helpful.

This time around you’ve sent me a classic advice-column letter of the “Should I break up with my partner?” variety. The answer is almost always yes, because by the time you reach the point of writing to an advice columnist, you’ve probably made up your mind to do the deed, and are just looking for external confirmation. I note that you didn’t ask me anything like “How can I keep this character while fixing the problems she creates?”; you went straight for “If I remove her from the book, how do I do it?” This is something like saying “Should I dump my girlfriend, and if I do, do you think email or a text is better?”

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#39: No Writer Is an Island

Hi Story Nurse!

I started off writing fanfiction in a community with a lot of group and dyad critique. When I got into pro fiction I discovered I had built a great critique toolbox that I used to further myself into an excellent developmental editor.

I can do hard, deep critique for folks where I immediately see the bones of a story and how it is or isn’t fitting together. Structure and content problems are breeze to see and fix. I quickly come up with a fix or offer a variety of options (“You make it the uncle, not the dad, and what if he’s a veterinarian who specializes in rare tropical fish? Or give both tasks to the aunt and make her a world-renowned biologist?” “Hey that improves everything and allows X, Y, and Z, to happen more organically. Thanks, Ajax!”).

When I sit down to work on my own stories I rely heavily on friends, beta readers, and most especially my editor to help fix the broken and disconnected bones of my own story. Often I know something is wrong with my work, but I just can’t see what it is until someone else points it out. If someone shoots me a good fix idea I can run with it and make shine, but I can’t come up with it alone.

How can I turn those good editor eyes on my own work?

—Ajax Bell (they/them)

Dear Ajax Bell,

You’re not at all alone in this. Many, many editors have run into similar issues when they’re writing. (Editor and author Jessica Strawzer just wrote an op-ed for Publishers Weekly on her struggle to accept that all her editing expertise didn’t make it easier for her to write, or to get her fiction published.) Fortunately, that means there’s a known, tried-and-true answer to your question: you can’t.

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#38: A Plotless Novel

Hi Story Nurse,

Up front, my question is: what is the best way to go about a plot-less novel? Is such a thing possible?

Meaty details: the Most Important project that I’m working on right now is best described as a postmodern epistolary (anti-)bildungsroman. In simpler terms, it’s a collection of letters written by a shut-in. You can imagine that nothing much happens. Or maybe more precisely, nothing really resolves in any kind of traditional storytelling way.

I have personal reasons for wanting to finish this sucker and put it out into the world more or less as I’ve envisioned it, but I obviously would like it to be readable (and, ideally, marketable). I’m at a loss for other works I can use as an example for what I want to accomplish.

Any protips?

—An Unfunny Seinfeld (she/her)

Dear Unfunny Seinfeld,

It is certainly possible to write a plotless novel. You’re demonstrating this by doing it. If you want to entertain yourself by writing a book where not much happens, plot threads don’t resolve, and characters don’t grow, there’s no reason not to do that.

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#37: When Depression Stops You from Writing

This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Content note: this letter and the response talk in some detail about depression and strong self-critical thoughts.

Dear Story Nurse:

Over the course of many years, in fits and starts, I wrote a novel (actually two but the first was pretty bad!), got an agent, and got myself published last year. The reviews were positive, even the meanies at Kirkus, although I did not get any of those starred reviews that publishing houses seem to live and die by. But nobody was mean to me or anything. The sales were low, but those who did read it seemed to enjoy what I wrote. Some hated it, of course, but others really loved it and even took the time to let me know. The publisher declined the option on my next, but I have a wonderful agent who continues to support me wholeheartedly.

So. In that paragraph I can count roughly a half dozen events that many struggling writers would kill to have happen to them. There are, as Captain Sensible would say, many reasons to be cheerful. And yet I’m not. I feel like a failure.

I never deluded myself about bestsellers or Oprah’s book club or whathaveyou. I actually work in a different type of publishing for my day job, so I have a pretty realistic understanding of how difficult the business is. I had no illusions (or even desire, really) about supporting myself through fiction. And yet there’s this tremendous sense of disappointment and I don’t even know why. I mean, what did I expect? I expected what happened, more or less. And yet I feel like a fuck-up in some way I can’t even explain.

The real problem is that this depression (I guess that’s what it is?) is standing in the way of my ability to finish the next thing. I have two new books started. I have an agent who would love to have something else to sell. And yet I hate everything I write these days and find myself wondering about the point of it all.

What’s more, I’m totally embarrassed by the whole situation. I know that good books get ignored all the time. I know I have many more reasons to be grateful and proud than I do reasons to be unhappy. But knowing it doesn’t seem to help. I can’t seem to Stewart Smalley my way out of this one.

My question is, how do I stop being such a baby and get back to work?

—Captain Insensible (she/her)

Dear Captain Insensible,

I’m sorry you’re having such a hard time right now. I’m very glad you wrote in, because it means that you want to feel better, and wanting to feel better is a crucial first step toward getting better.

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