Cutting Characters: The Deadly Side of Eliminating the Uninvited by L.V. Pires
I think of a first draft as a wild disco party—and everyone is invited!
My focus is on the strobe lights and pulsating music and not necessary who’s coming through the front door, although it’s hard to ignore the mobster spewing profanities and the nun guzzling a keg of beer. There are even a few walk-ons dressed in togas and one guy posed as a tree who stands in the corner angrily shaking his leaves at people who ignore him.
Trust your intuition. Everyone is here to deliver an important message necessary to the story’s theme. Don’t judge. Allow yourself to be taken away by the moment. Keeping a carefree attitude is what allows the creativity to flow.
And, suddenly, the most interesting people appear—clean-cut basketball players with sonar guns tucked into their waistbands, ruthless divas filing their nails into sharp points, and geeks with binoculars and Audubon guides asking me which way to Bloodsworth Island.
Okay, so maybe you don’t want to attend one of my parties, yet.
But, wait! I’m almost done with my first draft…that’s when the real party starts.
Although writers start out with a cast of characters ready to deliver the story’s message, sometimes that message changes. Sometimes the truth of what you want to say is hidden somewhere much deeper. Maybe it’s much more profound and can only be achieved by altering your character’s motive, appearance, dialogue, thoughts, and what it is they truly want.
It’s a Re-Vision, as Janet Burroway says in Writing Fiction, “Often I will believe that because I know who my characters are and what happens to them, I know what my story is about—and often I find I’m wrong, or that my understanding is shallow or incomplete” (397).
This is when the hard work begins. It’s time for a controlled burn. Carefully selected prose must be torched so that your story can germinate and thrive.
And, this, dear readers, may mean as Faulkner says, “kill all your darlings.”
I flick on the overhead lights and see a few characters passed out on my chaise lounge. They’ve out stayed their welcome. I don’t remember their names. Harry? Paulette? Raphael? It doesn’t matter. I hurry them to the door – throwing their jackets at them and shouting just get out.
Turning, I spot twins standing at the dessert table. I demand to know if they’re just going to stand there and eat all my cream puffs or did they bring something with them to my fabulous party.
They flounder with excuses. One whispers in my ear—she knows who killed Sam.
I step back. “Sam?” I ask. “Who’s Sam?”
They simultaneously lift the tablecloth to show me Sam’s body, stabbed clean through the heart.
“Lower the tablecloth,” I say, acknowledging their purpose, but not before I merge them into one—twins are so overrated.
“Sam can stay, too,” I say. “And, the clown in the corner with the kitchen knife.”
By this time gypsies and fortune-tellers are fleeing from my party, taking with them ballerinas and baton twirlers. And, that’s fine by me. I only want the characters who really matter—the guy dressed as a tree is carried off by a lumberjack and there’s now just a few of us remaining.
It’s morning. Daylight streams through the open windows. The fresh smell of ocean air carries off the last of my charred prose. I’m getting closer to what it is I want to tell you.
Oh, yes, here it is, a second time, for emphasis—kill your darlings. Leave only the ones who will tell your truest story. It is, after all, your story. Only then will your tale come alive and fresh, interesting and new.
And, don’t worry about the others you’ve sent away—they always come back for a good party.
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