The Problem with Hannah: Or, Learning to Love to Kill Your Babies (a rant on writing)

I got a rejection email today from a market that I had sold to before.  While I’m disappointed, of course, I’m also glad that the editor gave me a personal rejection, filled with solid suggestions for improving the story and a kind note saying that if the market did not have a strong policy against considering rewrites, he’d ask me for one.  This is the closest I’ve come to a sale since January; I’ll take my validation where I can.  Still, there’s sorrow to be drowned, and I’m going to drown it in yet more writing.  And dealing with a problem called Hannah.

The problem with Hannah is that she’s one of my favorite minor characters in The Solitude of the Tentacled Space Monster.  She’s mentioned for the first time in Chapter One; she has a brief scene in Chapter Three; and in Chapter Four, she dies.  And that, really, is her purpose: to die.  Her death is one of the turning points of the novel, one of those scenes which sets some characters on one path, and other characters on another.  It’s a great scene, I think, darker than the rest of the novel, but still a fun one.

But I really like Hannah.  As a character, she’s pretty nifty.  She’s based, very loosely, on some women that I’ve known, women that I’ve admired and enjoyed spending time with, and she’s the kind of character, I think, that shows up all too infrequently in genre fiction (or in any fiction, really).  I had lots of fun writing her scenes, and the people who have read the scenes with her have told me that she resonates strongly with them.

So today I started poking at the story, wondering if there’s a way I can give Hannah a stronger role.  Maybe I can spare her life.  Maybe she can crawl, broken and bloody, out of the trap she’s thrown into, and survive to the end of the story.  Or maybe it’s not really Hannah who dies, but someone else that looks so much like her that everyone thinks it is her, including the readers.  There’s got to be a way, I keep thinking, that I can spare Hannah, and have her live to tell her own story.

Unfortunately, there isn’t.  I’ve looked at the overall plot, and Hannah’s death is just too pivotal.  If I have her survive, then the changes that her death inspires in the other characters won’t be genuine.  If I give her more attention, develop her further, than her character will draw attention from the other characters.  If she lives, then one of the major themes of the novel withers into insignificance.

And so, Hannah must die.

This is one of the hardest parts of writing, it seems to me: striking out those elements that you love so much but which don’t advance the story.  It might be a lovely bit of prose that puts the finest sonnets of Shakespeare to shame but which does nothing to advance the plot.  It might be a brilliantly crafted scene that contributes nothing at all to the story.  It might be a devious plot complication that will have your readers gasping but which does nothing to develop your characters or strengthen your theme.  And, of course, it might be a beloved minor character whose death is so central to the plot that to have her survive is to kill the story; but to kill her off is to break your heart.  These are an author’s literary babies.  We must learn to kill them.

Even more importantly, we must learn to love killing them, because killing them means that the story is so much better.  I can imagine that Doctor Frankenstein must have wanted to add some more bolts to his creature’s head; they would have been stylish, certainly, and given the monster a certain panache, but in the end they would have just gotten in the way, overbalanced the monster’s head, and it would have fallen over before it could utter its first menacing moan.  (It helps to think of your own story as a lumbering, clumsy creature, moaning its way through the landscape and portrayed most effectively by Boris Karloff; really, it does.)  On the other hand, sometimes you can put those babies aside and use them later in another story.  When it came time to build a wife for the monster, I’m sure Doctor Frankenstein was glad that he had a few bolts left over from his earlier creation.  So perhaps that bit of prose that was beautifully crafted can end up somewhere else, as can that devious plot twist or that spiffy scene that you loved so much.  But for now, you must kill them; and you must be chortling with glee as you do so.  Writing is a dirty, bloody business, and the world is littered with the corpses of favorite characters killed before they ever got a chance to shine, as well as piles of prose and rooms full of clever scenes.

Hannah’s definitely a problem.  I might be able to write some other stories that feature her, but knowing that she will die in The Solitude of the Tentacled Space Monster will always make her stories at least a little tragic, no matter how clever and funny they are.  I think the only solution is to write her scene, kill her off as necessary, and drink a toast to her bravery.

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