You probably knew, when you started writing, that you’d signed on for murder. I was warned well in advance: One of my favorite childhood books was Lois Lowry’s The One Hundredth Thing About Caroline, in which the title character finds the notebook of the man her mother is dating. “Eliminate the kids,” one note says. She and her brother swing into crime-fighting mode, only to discover in the end that this man, a writer, was talking about editing characters out of his work-in-progress.
Later, as I studied writing, I’d hear authors lament the characters they’d had to erase from draft two, the ones who “felt like real people” to them. Or they’d talk about the ones they kept around because, despite the fact that they served no real purpose in the narrative, they’d become old friends.
In fact, our first drafts are often overpopulated. There’s a reason: Your character needs a boss, so you invent a boss. He’s a typical boss. He wears a suit and does boss-like things. “Get me those numbers, Stan!” he says. You need someone to overhear the nighttime argument, so you invent the nosy neighbor. She’s always trimming her azaleas, of course. Naturally, she’s a widow in her sixties. Your character can’t get over someone, so you invent the ex. A cruel, beautiful ex who appears only in flashback, saying belittling things about your guy’s manhood. By halfway through a novel, you’ve got enough fictional characters to fill a cruise ship.
And how could you possibly cut any of them? If you lose the boss, you lose the whole storyline at work. You lose the neighbor, and all the pressure goes out of the fight scene. So you keep them all—which is often the wrong answer. Or you bite the bullet and have a stiff drink and sit down to cut those people, cut those scenes. Which is quite possibly the wrong answer too, and almost definitely unnecessary.
I faced this dilemma in my second novel, The Hundred-Year House. The last third of the book was vastly overpopulated. (It was set at an artists’ colony in 1929, so I needed lots of eccentrics running around. Did I need twenty of them? No.) I realized, with horror, that three characters served largely the same function. I had two celebrities there (the painter Georgia O’Keeffe and the poet Marianne Moore) and a fictional artist named Zilla Silverman. All were serene, charismatic. All spent their days working, their nights socializing with the other artists. There were differences, certainly. Moore was a baseball fan and only wore black. O’Keeffe’s husband, Alfred Stieglitz, was jealously waiting for her back in New York. Zilla was in love with a choreographer staying at the colony. I’d spent months researching O’Keeffe’s and Moore’s lives. I’d read an enormous volume of O’Keeffe’s correspondence, just to get her voice right. “Yes yes yes yes yes,” she’d written to her husband in one ecstatic overflow—and I’d put those words in her mouth in my book.
But they couldn’t all stay. Nor could they all go. I mourned for a few hours. I went for a very long walk around the grounds of the retreat where I was staying. If I’d been home, I’d have ignored the problem for days; there, I had to make a decision. I came back inside and saved my document with the date, and then I began outlining (on a scrap of notepaper) what the story would look like if these women weren’t cut, but combined. Folded carefully together like egg whites and cake batter. What would a Georgia-Marianne-Zilla hybrid look like? What would she do? Well, for starters, the fact that she’d have a jealous husband would make the relationship with the choreographer much more interesting. And of course she could dress in black. Why not? She could share Moore’s wicked sense of humor. I’d name her Zilla (I was a little worried all along about O’Keeffe or Moore feeling like superfluous cameos), but the painting she’d be working on that summer on would recognizably, to O’Keefe fans, be Oak Leaves, Pink and Gray. She could be famous. Everyone could know about the nude portraits her photographer husband had exhibited of her. She could say “Yes yes yes yes yes.”
And suddenly I had, instead of three characters each serving one function, one character with complexities and contradictions and nuance. I had a human being more three-dimensional than any of my original characters had been. (more…)