Removing a Major Character From My Novel

I’m working on a historical novel set in 18th century Edinburgh. The novel is also my PhD dissertation. I’m due to defend my dissertation at the end of June, with the intention of graduating over the summer.

For my defence, I don’t have to hand in a complete novel but I would very, very much like to.

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After a lot of work — including a journey to Edinburgh for research — I completed a nearly finished draft. 

The book was written, start to finish, but with a hole in the middle. This novel has three sections, each separated by 10+ years, as though it’s made up of three fast-paced novellas: one section when the protagonist is a boy, one when he’s a young man, and one when he’s older. The book was written all the way to the end, but I couldn’t work out how to conclude the middle section. The story just seems to spiral out of control, even though I’ve drafted it multiple times, in multiple ways. I had to hand it into my dissertation director, the brilliant writer and teacher Michael Knight, with the hole still in it.

He read and marked up my manuscript, giving me substantial suggestions for a revision, advising that I cut certain elements, add in others.

His main piece of advice was a little chilling, however: he advised that I should cut a major character. This character is in the book from the second chapter all the way to the end, has a lot of “page-time,” and is the villain of the book’s final third.

He starts off as the protagonist’s frenemy, and becomes worse and worse as the years progress.

It was tough news to receive. I really liked the character: I still like him, even now he’s gone.

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But, after Prof Knight and I had talked, I went home and thought about it. I made notes, sketched out new scenes, typed a new plan in Omni Outliner.

I noticed:

  1. Whenever I described the novel to someone else, I never mentioned this character.
  2. When people asked what the character’s arc was, all I could say was: he just gets more powerful and more inhumane.
  3. I started revising scenes from the opening of the novel, seeing what they would look like with him removed, and I discovered that his absence materially changed the endings of no scenes. Removing him made the scenes, perhaps, less exciting, less strange, but the actual plot was 100% identical from draft one to draft two.
  4. As I re-planned the rest of the opening section, I discovered that two other major characters seemed to expand to take over his roles. They just flowed into events and scenes where I hadn’t pictured them before, and grew as people as a result. This seems like a good thing.
  5. I looked over later sections of the book and realised that I had written many, many scenes that were simply keeping track of this character, reintroducing him, reminding the reader of his existence, and that they were making the telling of the story much more complicated.
  6. There might be ways to save the character, but given that the novel has a real problem (the weird unwritable hole in the middle) and this suggestion is a clear way to try to solve that problem (by significantly simplifying the storyline), I think I’m going to try it.

So… I think I’m going for this. I’m taking him out.

The road feels clear: only, I now have a very short amount of time to revise my rather substantial novel so I can submit an improved version to my committee and defend at the end of June.

It’s a great feeling to be closing on this novel’s final form. I’m working on it flat out, typing and copy and pasting, and over the last two days of full time work, I’m 20,000 words into the revision. It’s exhausting, exciting work.

Best wishes with your writing. Let me know if you’ve ever had to remove an important character in revision.

8 thoughts on “Removing a Major Character From My Novel

  1. Wow! After so much work, I can imagine the feeling I would have had in my stomach to receive such a suggestion, but it sounds like it was a key idea to make your novel work in the end. I am so happy for you that you thought it out and took the plunge. How we take advice and criticism is so telling about how much we will develop throughout our careers. Best of luck to you in this home stretch . . . though I know there will be loads of work still ahead for you as you (find?) and work with a publisher and get it on the shelves.

    Liked by 1 person

    • — that comment posted too early. Oops.

      … So I think it’s important, if one is an artist, to work out ways to absorb more criticism without flinching or making up reasons why it shouldn’t matter. This isn’t easy, particular when one wants to preserve one’s own intentions, own voice.

      Liked by 1 person

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