At a writers’ conference several years ago, Michael Connelly was asked why he killed off Terry McCaleb, the protagonist in Blood Work and other books. Connelly said he no longer could see himself spending a year up close and personal with McCaleb during the period of novel writing – McCaleb had lost his staying power. I mourn the loss of McCaleb, but I admire Connelly’s coldly-calculated ability to jettison characters.
I’m too soft; I lack the backbone to force people I create to scram. Series characters like McCaleb are the least of it. I can’t even cut loose folks who aren’t supposed to make it through one book. They dillydally and filibuster, and next thing you know I’m near the end of the story with a character or three still hanging around who should have departed the premises two hundred pages ago. I search for plausible ways to dump them better late than never, but often they manage to cling to the plot with their fingertips until the finish.
Unscheduled survival of characters isn’t always bad, but it does create more work for the author. In my novel The Ninth Man, I introduced two characters early on with the intention of exterminating them soon after. However, they struck my fancy, so I found other things for them to do. The other things helped advance the plot, but when it came time to wrap up loose ends, I couldn’t decide what to do with one of the characters, so I just quit talking about him. Didn’t work. My editor had become attached to the guy and insisted that his fate be explained. Thus rewrites were necessary to expand his role to the point where he may become a recurring character should The Ninth Man turn out to be the first book in a series.
Letting characters live who really ought to die can be a recipe for disaster though. A novel I wrote after The Ninth Man with a different protagonist and concept begins with an 1860s prologue that sets up the modern day story. The key prologue characters are a woman and man originally intended to be throwaways – they’d get the ball rolling and exit, never to be seen again. However – you guessed it – they refused to go, and I caved and allowed them to stay.
Which presented a problem. If the woman and man were in their twenties in the 1860s and still alive and vigorous in the present day, they’d be about one hundred and seventy years old, a little beyond the outer limits of life expectancy. My solution? I gave the characters an object of religious significance with supernatural healing powers that kept them alive. A cool idea I thought at the time, and even now I’m not sure whether failure, as measured by agent disdain, resulted from the idea or the execution. Regardless, the point here is that my unwillingness to kick characters to the curb at the appropriate moment caused me to take a wrong turn onto a potholed road to Rejectionville. Pretty stupid: I have a long history of cruising to Rejectionville on the expressway, I don’t need to be taking slower, gimmicky detours.
Inability to toss characters overboard is a particular problem in the mystery genre, where a certain number of murders are de rigueur. I once heard an agent say that if a dead body doesn’t appear by page three, the manuscript is dead to her. Everybody can’t live happily ever after. One trick I’ve learned to combat my soft-heartedness is to bring some people to the party already killed. If they’re corpses at first contact, they don’t have an opportunity to beg for their lives.
I’ve also become a better negotiator. The aforementioned 1860s woman who ruined my last novel petitioned to play a role in the one I’m writing now. Can you imagine her gall? I agreed – can you imagine my idiocy – but only under the condition that she accept a modern day makeover. She’s not a hundred and seventy, and she doesn’t possess an object with supernatural healing powers. In case she still won’t slide smoothly into the story, or in case others in the novel won’t take a hike when their jobs are done, I’m shopping for a hook like the one Chuck Barris used on The Gong Show to drag especially odious performers off stage.
Brad Crowther is a Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina fiction writer and consultant. His suspense novel The Ninth Man weaves together fictional murders in modern-day Charleston, SC with the true mystery of the Confederate submarine Hunley, which vanished after sinking a Union ship in Charleston Harbor during the Civil War. Brad was the 2010 winner of the Black Orchid Novella Award, an international contest for the best mystery novella written in the tradition of the Nero Wolfe detective series. The novella, “Politics Makes Dead Bedfellows,” was published by Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in 2011. Brad’s website is www.bradcrowther.com.
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