Love Your Characters, But Not Too Much – you might have to kill them off one day…

killingI don’t know about other writers, but when I write a character in one of my novels, I’m already infatuated with them. Even if they’re a one chapter, throw-a-way character. I’ve thought about them, I’ve created a profile, traits and quirks and depending on their story arc, a whole back story… But, I’ve learned that I can’t get too invested in these characters because they might just be killed off. And not by me, but by my editor.

Let me explain. In my most recent WIP, I started the novel with 3 main characters, 6 supporting characters, and a host of other minor characters.

By the time my editor went through the first 3 chapters, I received a little note… “Lyse, I’d like to talk to you about Sean…” Sean was a main character and a sidekick of the main detective in the novel, who helps my main protagonist, Kelsey. My editor and I had a few conversations and I realized that Sean didn’t need to be in the book. He was only in the beginning and while I had devoted whole chapters to him, he wasn’t going to be integral to the climax of the novel. Into the trash he went, along with 2 chapters… (Character #1)

Then came a scene where my protagonist is having dinner with all her friends… People important to her life… 3 of them only show up in that chapter… Into the trash they went… (#2, #3, #4) along with an entire scene of them.

Then my protagonist has a flashback and we get to see what she was like as a teen… for me this was an integral scene where she is confronted by 4 bullies and has to protect her friends and we see her strength and resilience… My editor’s take? “Now, don’t let your emotion sway you on this chapter. The reader knows that Kelsey is beautiful, powerful and a force to be reckoned with. You don’t have to pound it into their heads. Too much attention to the childhood is going to turn off the readers who want a thriller, not heavy on the kids.”(#5, #6, #7, #8 characters… gone)

And then, I lost two boyfriends… sigh… I wrote two flashbacks about her growing up, two (what I thought) were great scenes, but just background fluff. Into the trash they went along with their two chapters. (#9 and #10). I’ll be honest, I argued about this for at least 3 days and refused to let them go. I thought they were important, and I LIKED them! My editor’s advice? “Delete them. It slows the scene down. Get rid of it.” I know that sounds harsh, but she was right. I thought I might want to bring these characters back at some point in a future book and that’s why I needed to have them in the book. Her advice? “No, you don’t have to mention them in the first book. There is no law that says every character you ever want in your series has to be foreshadowed. Just trot them in there when you need them. What would prevent your character from recalling this fellow when he shows up in book two?” My editor let me “mention” them somewhere else in the novel. Two lines as a side note. But you know what? It worked. The book is a thriller and those scenes would have simply slowed down the pace.

Now, I won’t lie, deleting characters and chapters are a killer for me, as I’m sure it is for others. Know what I do to lessen the pain? I save them in a file called “Deleted chapters” and I feel like I haven’t entirely killed them off. They’re still sitting there in all their lovely glory… just not in the story. Hey, if their back story is sound, maybe I can bring them back one day… right? Right?

My editor is doing a special until Labor Day. Normally she charges $4 a page, but she’s only charging $2 a page, doublespaced, for your manuscript. If you wish to take your writing up to the next level and have a fantastic writing coach work with you, with the work personalized specifically to your novel, I highly recommend her. Here’s her website:

9 thoughts on “Love Your Characters, But Not Too Much – you might have to kill them off one day…

  1. Cool advice on keeping the fluff characters to a minimum. I have to agree with your editor. I hate it when a story is going great until the writer feels a need to justify the characters actions by delving into a back story. It sounds like you have a good editor.

  2. This is a hard lesson for any writer to learn. I had to do it in my first book as well, and ended up losing characters throughout the book.

    Good on you for being strong, and taking the knife to them. Editors know what they are doing. 🙂

  3. Great post, Elyse! I have a similar problem. I don’t normally have too many characters (I usually find I don’t have enough). What I do have problems with is being too nice to my characters. The root of the problem is the same though! We can’t like our characters so much we can’t do them wrong when they need it, or kill them off when another character needs it! It’s been a hard lesson to learn, and I’m still working on it.

    • Oh, the too nice problem – that could be a whole blog post! I had that issue. My editor said “your readers don’t have to love your character, but they do have to empathize with them.” I made my female protagonist way too goody goody at first… thank you so much for reading and commenting!

  4. Elyse you are much ahead of me. I strug together 95,000 words to stab at the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, but I know the manuscript needs lot of work before it gets to an editor. Thanks for this piece of experience though I can see how beneficial an editor can be, I need to try to find one.

  5. Hi, Elyse. Thanks for the perspective on what can happen behind the scenes in novel crafting. I watch a lot of film, so I am aware that future directors are taught that their favorite scenes may end up on the cutting room floor. That doesn’t make it feel any better, huh? Perhaps one of these days with the digital book revolution our books will get the special edition version, much like with BluRays. Can you imagine books having deleted scenes, blooper reels, author commentary and Easter Eggs. 😉


    • I love that idea you have of “special edition” versions of our novels because of the digital revolution. Thanks so much for commenting Jimmy. I really appreciate it.

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