By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder
Over the years, my MG historical novel has been critiqued, revised, submitted, requested, and rejected. It is a grueling process. In fact, there is only one reason why I have not abandoned this project all together – I love this story. I really do.
It was time to take some drastic action. Try something “out-of-the-box.” After thinking about it for weeks, I decided to hire a well-respected private editor to do an in-depth critique. I had recently attended her workshop and felt she would be a good fit for the story.
The editor agreed to do the work and asked me to email the book. I was elated, thrilled, and proud of myself for taking this step. Unfortunately, months went by without a word from her. I began to worry. I became convinced the manuscript was beyond repair which was why it was taking her so long to getback to me. Finally, her response arrived. I opened the attachment and braced myself for the news. And there it was, twenty-four, single-spaced, pages of notes.
I took a deep breath and began scrolling. There was good news and bad news. The good news was that the writing was strong. Yay! I had done a wonderful job of building my world. The setting was authentic and believable. Double yay! She also loved my lively cast of characters. Jumping up and down!
But there was bad news. Well, let’s not call it that. After all, I had hired this editor to find out what wasn’t working. Bottom line – My main character’s story-worthy problem was not story-worthy. The stakes were too low. The outcome was unsatisfying. I needed to amp it up – make my protagonist’s dilemma more urgent and emotional. I read on, hoping the editor had provided ideas on how to fix this. She had. She identified two meaty subplots that could be “mined” and turned into story-worthy problems. Great! I could do that. I loved those subplots.
Except for one more problem. My main character was being overshadowed by some of the more interesting secondary characters. Ugh! I had done that on purpose. This particular protagonist was supposed to start out naïve and meek and evolve into a dynamic, action-taking person as the story unfolded. Only it wasn’t happening fast enough. This girl was a wishy-washy pushover who was being too influenced by those around her. Especially her rebellious older sister and her spunky best friend.
The editor assured me that this was a common mistake. Main characters needed to grow and change over the course of the novel. They had to stretch themselves and become risk-takers as they jumped over hurdles and surmounted obstacles. But this girl needed more pizazz, more flaws. Readers were not going to care enough about her to follow her to the end of the journey. She had to drive the action more, make larger mistakes, recover, flounder, and keep going until her new story-worthy problem was solved.
My head began to spin as I read through those twenty-four pages. This was going to be a ton of work. A total rewrite! Then, suddenly, a plot-twisting possibility popped into my brain. It was like an annoying mosquito buzzing in my ear.
“Get rid of the rebellious sister,” it hissed.
“What?” I said, swatting at the invisible bug. “I can’t. I love that sister. And she’s critical to the plot.”
The buzzing continued. “She needs to gooooo.”
“No,” I said, more emphatically. “She’s too important.”
“She’s not,” the insect hummed, flying around to the other ear. “She’s stealing the thunder. Grabbing the attention away from your main character. Delete her! NOW!”
I didn’t want to admit it, but the editing mosquito was right.
I opened my computer and took a deep breath. It was time to re-plot. I began by eliminating the snarky older sister. Then I focused on transplanting her “attention-getting” traits into my main character. I made a new plot-map and merged it with a SAVE THE CAT – Beat Sheet. It was only a preliminary plan, but I could already see my protagonist morphing into someone who was more impulsive and action-oriented. She would have good intentions, but would make a lot of mistakes as she went along. Readers would root for this girl. They would cheer her on as she ran amok before solving her brand new story-worthy problem.
I miss the sister. But deep down, I know my story will be stronger without her.
Have you ever had to get rid of a lovable secondary character? Let me know how it turned out.