When to Kill a Character

Quirky indeed!

We novel writers often put a lot of thought into creating unique characters. These characters are people who are interesting and who make for a memorable reading experience. Yet in certain situations, these unique characters are, unfortunately, better off dead.
Writing Tip for Today: How can you discern when killing off a character is advisable?

  • Drowning in Quirk. Some readers LOVE quirk in a novel, quirk meaning characters with outlandish habits, appearances or personalities. But when does quirk begin to work against the story? I remember with heart piercing accuracy the day an editor said a few of the characters in my debut novel, The Fence My Father Built (which had lots of quirk) seemed overwritten. While I was initially wounded, I gradually came to see what the editor meant. When the quirk is the only memorable part of your story or if said quirks are yelling louder than a garish blend of plaids and polka dots, it may be time to dial back the quirk. The result will be more life-like characters, which the reader can take seriously. And if that’s not possible, try killing off or combining characters to keep readers from drowning in quirk.
  • The Too Helpful Character. If your MC has a sidekick who bails her out or somehow fixes the MC problems, well, Huston, we’ve got a problem. Readers insist on lead characters who solve their own problems. A supporting character can be an encourager, a truth teller or able to provide comic relief, or worshipper at the MC’s feet (think Watson to Sherlock). But when this character starts solving the MC’s problem’s, the lead tends to seem weak, indecisive or bland. This problem is often present in a multiple viewpoint novel, especially when the author isn’t quite sure whose story it is. Ask yourself who has the most at stake, who has the most to lose. Chances are, a winner will emerge to claim ownership of the story, but if it’s a tie, kill one of them. It’s the humane thing to do.
  • Upstaging the Star. Famous people know they need an entourage that doesn’t EVER upstage them. If you’ve created a supporting character who is more interesting than your lead, one who elbows her way to upstage the MC or who seems to “take over” scenes or prevent them from moving the story, you may have to kill that character off. It’s the most fun you can have without getting law enforcement involved. And if your character refuses to die, well, there’s always the sequel.

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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