I killed off a character this weekend.
Well, I didn’t KILL her. I mean, she’s not dead. She’s just been removed from the play. Which is too bad, because I really liked her. But on the heels of Mead’s editing notes and my new “cut-first-ask-questions-later” policy – which leaves us, at present, with a glorious total of THIRTY-THREE PAGES CUT (Mead is worth every penny, you guys) – I kept whittling away and whittling away, removing chunks that were repetitive or unnecessary, or restated something that had already been said or would be said later, or just filling in blanks for the audience that they could fill in for themselves, or clearing away stuff that was detracting from the main story. And before I knew it, Haley was only in one scene and not doing anything that important. So I had to sit down and figure out how to scrub her completely.
Mead brought it up first, delicately suggesting that I might want to give some thought to what Haley’s role was in the play and how to clarify that if I didn’t want to cut her. And since that moment, I kept thinking, “There’s no way out of this. Haley needs to go.” But I really like Haley, and cutting characters always feels so MEAN, so I kept telling myself that there had to be a way to keep her in.
I think I resisted cutting her for so long because putting her in was such a deliberate choice to begin with. The whole arc of the story is about this girl Molly and her relationships with men; her ex-boyfriend, her dad, and the monks that take her in after she sort of falls apart. She lives in a world where toxic relationships with men have basically made it impossible for her to have a healthy one. The monastery is, obviously, an environment of men. I thought it was important to give Molly a safety valve, as it were – with the cast being basically ten men and Molly, I thought she should have at least one other female character to let her relax a little bit. My first thought was to have a couple scenes with her therapist, but I nixed that – it would be too much like recapping . . . like, a thing would happen and then you’d see Molly telling her therapist about it, but you just SAW it, so all those scenes would be totally unnecessary.
So I axed the therapist. Then one of my youth ministry teens, who is an actor, told me she thought the play should have a teenager in it. Obviously her motives were at least a little mercenary, since she wanted to play that part herself. But I thought seriously about it, and the more I did, the more I liked it. Thus was born Haley. Until her untimely demise this weekend, Haley was the fourteen-year-old niece of Brother Magnus. Magnus is the monk who becomes closest with Molly; he also had a very close relationship with Molly’s mother. I liked what it added to him as a character that he was raising a teenage niece, in a monastery, to prevent her from going into foster care after her parents died. I also just really liked the idea of a teenage girl being raised in a monastery – quirky, precocious, comfortable in her own skin, and utterly content, Haley was everything that teenage Molly wasn’t. So Haley was a contrast to Molly in that she could show all the things Molly could have had if the monks had stepped in to rescue her after what happened to her in childhood – something all the monks think about from time to time. But she’s also a girl raised completely by men, who kind of exemplifies all the positive male relationships that Molly never had. The idea for this came a little bit from the neighborhood where I grew up in Northeast Portland, where there were so many kids of around the same age that everyone’s parents were kind of your parents too. Like, we all walked home from school together, and you’d end up at someone’s house, and someone’s mom would give you all a snack and make you do homework and make sure you were back at your own house for dinner, and no one worried. I like that “it takes a village” idea, and having a teenage girl running carefree around a monastery – helping Brother Dominic in the garden, reading old books in the library, taunting crazy old Brother Stephen – seemed like a good way to show how different these men are from the men that Molly has known before.
So, good idea, right? Right. I was really excited about it. But as I went through and sliced away at chunks of scenes that were extraneous or weren’t furthering the plot, I kept cutting out mentions of Haley, or interludes where Haley would briefly enter a scene, or dialogue between other characters and Haley, until I realized she was only in one scene left. And then I broke out into a cold sweat because A) that one scene left was a scene she was so integral to that I might as well cut the whole scene if I was going to cut Haley, and B) if I cut that scene there was no going back, and it was goodbye to Haley, and when would I get to use her again, because what are the odds that like every play I ever write is going to be set in a monastery? Then I told myself I was not ACTUALLY murdering a teenager and that this is FICTION and I should not feel quite so guilt-ridden about it.
So Haley got the chop. Poor kid. But I liked her. Maybe one day she’ll get her own play. I’ll write, like, a Monastery Trilogy or something. But for now, the play is 33 pages shorter and Molly is the only woman – which, the more I think about it, the more I like. I hope it works.