When to Eliminate a Character

I wrote this blog four years ago and I’m reprinting it because I now have an epilogue to it. I also think it’s important for a writer to know when to eliminate a character. The YA crime novel I refer to has never been published. Shortly after I knew “A Rose from the Ashes” was going to be published, I abandoned the novel for my Rae Riley mysteries.

I thought I was ready.

When an agent said I could send her the proposal for my YA crime novel, she also said I could send two-paragraph blurbs describing the other books in the series. When I got home, I was so excited and settled down to the job, eager to introduce into the second novel one of my favorite characters, a mysterious stranger who helps my main character and his family and whose motivations and history are revealed over the series.

Only I couldn’t summarize the book. No matter how I approached the blurb, I kept stumbling over my mysterious stranger. He wouldn’t fit easily into the narrative. He clashed and grated on other characters. His motivations never felt right. A few days before November 11, 2018, I hit on the reason: I didn’t need him any more.

In my head, I’d been developing this series for years, adding characters, changing personalities, explored motivations. I now had other characters who could do the job of the mysterious stranger more easily and believably.

So on November 11, 2018, I killed my character. It didn’t bother me like I thought it would. I love my characters, feeling an almost maternal protectiveness (don’t tell my kids) as I nurture and polish them. But once I killed the stranger, I felt at ease. When a story isn’t working, I obsess over how to fix it because I can’t stand the feeling that something is wrong. After I made the the final decision to axe the stranger, the relief I felt signaled I’d made the right decision.

It also signaled I’d changed as a writer. I was more concerned with serving the story than myself. I found myself wanting to write the best story possible, no matter how painful the path to get there.

So, sorry, mysterious stranger. I may resurrect you for another story, change you a bit, cast you in a somewhat different role.

But for now — rest in peace.


I have resurrected the mysterious stranger.

He’s changed a lot. He’s younger and now works as a deputy in Marlin County for the father of my main character, Rae Riley. His appearance has also changed, but what hasn’t is his air of mystery. This results from his silence about certain parts of his life and also the wide range of unusual skills he has. Over the course of the series, I hope to reveal his mysterious past.

So be encouraged–if you’ve worked years on a book that you can’t sell, try writing something else. Then you will very likely draw on settings or characters or plots from the old book and transform them into something better for the new one. I believe no writing experience is a waste if it’s a building block to something better.

For more tips on creating characters, click here.

Have you put a hit out on a character? Why?

2 thoughts on “When to Eliminate a Character

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  1. I’ve definitely come up with lots of characters I want to kill off! Some deserve death. Some have to die for the sake of the story. Some die because I just feel like it. I’ve never really felt bad about killing off a character. I find it more fun than anything!!!

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