I’ve had a character on my mind a lot lately. She’s this super cool, hyper-intelligent mermaid excavating ancient underwater libraries and toppling on-land monarchies. The victim of a generations long curse, she’s just become free and isn’t taking anyone’s trash one second longer. She’s fierce and clever and the undisputed leader of her shoal. She’s also like thirteen. The girl is totally boss.
She also doesn’t exist. Like, super doesn’t exist, even more than most fictional characters. This character and her entire arc were cut from a book that had too many side stories. She was on the page only long enough for me to fall in love, and then she was gone.
I tend to produce hefty drafts that are waaaay too big for their genres. Even epic fantasy (from which this particular character hailed) doesn’t usually leave enough room for me to squeeze in everything I want to. So when it comes time for editing, I have to be pretty aggressive about what gets trimmed. You can only tighten the wordcount so far by changing ‘have to’ to ‘must’ and ‘is not’ to ‘isn’t’.
When I edit, I try to use this as my rule of thumb—does it further my core story? I like a side quest as much as the next guy, but if it doesn’t tie back into the heart of the story I’m trying to tell, it stands great risk of getting axed. Especially if the word count is already nearly 40k above industry standards. *coughs*
They say no word is ever wasted, and I believe that. But cutting still hurts, especially when I have to cut something or someone that I adore. So as I’m slash-and-burning my way through a sloppy first draft, here are three tactics that I employ to help me through the carnage.
Meld your characters. Combine your favorite aspects of the character-to-be-cut into a more meh character who’s sticking around for the long haul. Or replace the meh character entirely, but keep that character’s role and scope. This can be a little dissatisfying, since you know the character has so much more in them, but sometimes it can be enough for you to just know that they are awesome and move on. (Besides, you can always dream of wild literary success and then you can create entire spin-offs of whatever the heck you want, no matter how ridiculous. I’m looking at you, Bree Tanner. *glares*)
Move the character to a different book. Set aside the character and maybe even their entire storyline to be picked up in a later book. Maybe this is a series and the arc can be used to tighten up a sagging middle on a later book. Maybe their delayed quest can even become the key arc of its own book. Or maybe this character is so boss that they can move into an entirely different world and still rock it.
Chalk it up to practice. Professional athletes don’t just show up on game day, stretch out, and play the match of their lives. They practice for hours, days, years, leading up to it, and writing is the same. Sometimes the words you write are simply to help you clarify what you actually should write, or to work on improving your language, or, heck, just to become a faster typist. Practice is what takes you from novice to grandmaster. Not all practice is pay dirt that will be cashed in some day. Sometimes it’s just dirt that you have to move out of the way to get to the gold underneath.
Right now, I think my mermaid friend is destined for Door Number Two. I tried to just cut her and forget her, but that was like eight years ago and she’s still haunting me, leaving cold puddles at my bedside and tipping over cups of water. It may be best to just indulge her. She’s the stubborn type.
How about you fine readers? Do you have any beloved characters/places/mechanics/etc. that you’ve had to cut? How do you deal with it? Let me know in the comments! And until next week, happy writing!