Creative Essay: Better Off Dead (the art of character assassination)

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 The following was first published in Writer’s Digest in 2003.

Things weren’t working out between us. I knew him better than he knew himself, but he wasn’t getting along with the others, so he had to go. It was a shame, because I loved him. He was charming, handsome, intelligent and articulate. He came from a good family. But he was completely ruining the plot.

I had spent days developing Daniel’s character, giving him a past, interesting hobbies, a Harvard education – in short, breathing life into him with every keystroke. He was witty and always had interesting things to say, but something was wrong.

Although most aspects of the story were working, it kept hitting a dead end. I wrestled with different ideas and eventually realised that the story could work if I changed direction, but that meant killing off Daniel.

He struggled for life, fought me for it. I tried to negotiate and considered a walk-on part later in a later section of the story, but I knew that as much as it hurt me to cast him aside there was just no room for him.

As a writer, one of the hardest things I have had to learn is when to sacrifice not only those perfect pieces of dialogue and beautifully spun phrases, but also those irrelevant characters who just aren’t working. Quite often that larger-than-life character is precisely what is damaging my story and preventing the work from flowing.

Recognising the problem and having the guts to cut out what does not add to the piece has been a difficult but important part of the writing process.

Having said that, there is no reason why we can’t stash these treasures away for another time. The care and time spent on developing characters and dialogue does not have to be wasted. I know Daniel will never be a part of the story for which he was originally intended, but I know him so well that I feel compelled to give him a shot at a staring role in story all his own. I can’t wait to find out what he’ll say and do next time around.

© Eliza Dashwood, 2003

Image by Pentti Sammallahti

3 thoughts on “Creative Essay: Better Off Dead (the art of character assassination)

Add yours

  1. That’s really true. And helpful. It is so hard to just…delete something you’ve created. But sometimes it does just get in the way. Hmm..Thanks for posting! 🙂

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