The Guy Won’t Die: reflections on character assassination

Ever tried to kill a character who refuses to die? I’m not talking urban-fantasy gnome or umpteenth-sequel slasher — just an average guy who refuses to be killed off. I get him to the proverbial cliff, and he insists I let him stick around a little longer.

Not unlike the invasive neighbor who stops by to borrow a cup of sugar and somehow ends up inviting herself over for cake, this character’s a manipulative bitch. I’m beginning to hate him. So why can’t I push him off the balcony already?

If you know me, you know that I am incapable of working with an outline. I can’t grocery shop from a list, and I can’t write fiction with a plan. Dyslexia or plain-old madness, I’m not sure which. All I know is, the moment I try to structure a story is the moment in which my muse catches a flight to Tahiti. Then she comes back drunk and wants me to document her latest stint in rehab. It’s just not pretty.

So I wrote the first draft of this novel via my usual method: give birth to a handful of characters and let them live their lives. Usually, this is as far as I get. I purge the story from my system with a rough draft, then I move on to something else. Most of my manuscripts wouldn’t sell; I’m just not that talented or determined.

This one has been different. It’s felt promising. I went back to it twice and re-worked weak plot points, gave certain deserving scenes more depth, and breathed a bit more life into corners which felt too dark.

By round three I felt stuck. Something wasn’t right. This one particular character seemed to be overstepping his bounds, overshadowing the bigger picture. He showed up in scenes where he wasn’t wanted and overstayed his welcome. It was time for him to go.

This posed a few problems. The most obvious dilemma is that the physical death of another character is crucial to my main theme. The less threatening obstacle is that the whole book revolves around the metaphorical death and rebirth of the main character. Could the reader survive a third loss without wanting to kill me?

Round four: I had a plan and restructured everything necessary to implement the solution. As I was doing it, I felt how I imagine a surgeon must feel while cutting into the depths of a patient he knows in his heart he is going to lose. I was left with a body I couldn’t resurrect.

Skip forward to round five. (Round four was just too messy.) Back to the previous draft, the fork in the road, the point at which I would send Mr. Troublesome on his merry way without hurting anybody too much. He stared back at me from the page, looked me in the eye and said “You’re kidding me, right?” He stomped his foot and refused.

At this point, I’m completely frustrated. I’m beginning to sympathize with writers who pull a deus ex machina. Remember Vonnegut in Breakfast of Champions?

(“This is a very bad book you’re writing,” I said to myself.
“I know,” I said.)

Well, I’m no Vonnegut. But I’m considering inflecting a few suicidal tendencies upon this murder-proof character of mine. It’s either him or me.

Originally published September 21, 2007

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