Love of writing is a very peculiar kind of love. We spend hours alone, putting imaginary people through the paces, forsaking sleep and mental health in favor of coffee and scrawled character charts. We construct entire imaginary lives and then end them, in a way designed to upset those real people who have spent their time and money for the privilege of being upset.
But we love our characters, and that’s why, when we unleash some hellish fate on them, we’re polite enough to sigh and say “oh, you poor bastard” before picking up the knife again. And sometimes those characters and subplots and brilliant passages have to leave the story entirely.
Angela Goff (via @sirra_girl)calls this “stabby love,” and I think it’s a proper term. We hold knives to the throats of our characters, daring them to get out of the situations we’ve put them in. Challenging them. Be more interesting. More exciting. Be vital to the story — or you die.
If this seems a bit morbid, well, I guess it is. I don’t think dropping entire characters and storylines is a pleasant task — but it’s a necessary one. When it comes to editing, you can’t be a loving mother or father. You’re a narrative hitman, and your mission is to root out everything that isn’t the story.
The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one, as Kirk said in Star Trek II. In that movie, Spock died so the rest of the crew could live. In your writing, sometimes characters and subplots must die unmourned so that the rest of your story can live.
They don’t get any heroic speeches — they’re simply gone, perhaps to live again in some other story. Perhaps not. Writers are constantly making compost heaps of their own work, and some of those old ideas will thrive in new soil. But not everything returns, and that’s as it should be.
This is rarely easy. A beloved character can seem vital even when they’re not. It’s very easy to rationalize their existence, to alter the story to keep them around, when you need to just cut them. A great subplot or even an eloquent passage can be a liability if it drags the rest of the story down. It is a hard heart that kills.
But remember that you only kill out of love. Yeah, okay, that’s fairly ghoulish, but that’s the writing abattoir for you. You’re serving the rest of the story — trimming away dead material so that the rest can thrive.
So raise a toast to your brave, unnecessary characters, and do what must be done.