The life and death of Teresa Castillo

By Joe Moore

My co-writer Lynn Sholes and I had to kill one of our children. Her name was Teresa Castillo and she was born about a year ago. Now before you get concerned and call the police, Teresa was a supporting character for the antagonist in our newest thriller, THE PHOENIX APOSTLES. We developed her right from the start as his personal assistant. Not only did she know almost all his secrets, but as she developed in the story, she became jealous of the secrets he didn’t share with her, the ones that would have elevated her to a higher level of importance.

kill1Teresa also had some competition. His name is Carlos, and he does the dirty work for the antag. Carlos is strong-willed and wants to advance in the story as well. He and Teresa worked closely with the antag and with each other. And they both did things that rubbed our heroine the wrong way. But Carlos did some really bad things. And in the eyes of the reader, he definitely had to get his just rewards in the end. Not so much for Teresa. And therein was the problem.

Lynn and I write thrillers with complex plots, and THE PHOENIX APOSTLES is turning out to be the most complex of all. Because of the complexity, we have some really intense brainstorming sessions, especially as we approach the end of the book and must tie all the loose ends together so they are resolved for the reader. Our conference calls go on for hours as we play “what if”, argue, plot, and strategize. Since we live over 300 miles apart and only meet once or twice a year, we rely on unlimited long distance calling to work out the details.

Recently, we were discussing how each of our characters would resolve at the climax of the book. We both like big Hollywood endings, and this one is shaping up to be a whopper. We were going down the list of ever character, either signing their death warrants or letting them live another day. We knew what should happen to Carlos, but when we got to Teresa, we came up short. As a matter of fact, we couldn’t even justify placing her in the final scene. Normally, we assign all our characters “jobs” in each scene, and she was pretty much unemployed by the time the shit hit the fan.

There was a long silence on the phone. Then Lynn asked that dreaded question no self-respecting fictional character ever wants to hear. “Do we really need her?”

“You mean in the climax?”

“No, in the book?”

After another long pause, I had to admit she was right. If Teresa vanished from the pages of our novel, would it make any difference? The reluctant but honest answer was, no.

We came to the conclusion that we could convert all of Teresa’s “jobs” into the Carlos character and the result would be a tighter, crisper story with fewer heads to hop between.

And so the killing began.

Within a few hours, I had gone through the entire manuscript, found every instance of Teresa’s character, rewrote each one and shifting her responsibilities, motivations, and character development to Carlos. By sundown, Teresa was pronounced dead. Worse than dead; like some former Soviet government official who fell out of favor, she simply ceased to exist.

I had lived with Teresa for over a year. I knew her wants and needs. I liked her. But I had to sacrifice her to make for a better story. I mourned her passing, drank some whisky, and moved on.

R.I.P Teresa Castillo.

Have you ever had to kill any of your children? What forced you to do it? Were they main characters in your book or part of the supporting cast? Did it hurt or did you take pleasure in reducing them to the recycle bin?


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9 thoughts on “The life and death of Teresa Castillo

  1. A very important post for newer writers, Joe. Knowing when to keep, dispose of or combine minor characters is really an advanced skill. Sounds like you made the right decision here. (But are you sure she’s dead, and not somewhere else, plotting revenge? Watch your back)

  2. Nothing is ever lost, Joe. Keep Teresa’s character in mind, and you never know when she’ll earn a real role in another book.

  3. It’s not only hard to kill off a character, or should I say eliminate, meaning making it so she never existed, but it hurts when you strike chapters with that same deadly blade. Words are hard to come by and the idea of slicing out 3000 words hurts. But a writer’s gotta do what a writer’s gotta do.

  4. I had a character that I had to kill halfway through the novel. I needed someone on the ground to witness a catastrophe, and for him to have survived it would have been incredibly contrived. It was a shame, because he was a nice guy.

  5. I’ve had characters who were written to be killed, and characters who died unexpectedly (which was weird and quite traumatic for me).

    Once though, I had a character who I killed in the third chapter of a book, then in a later chapter changed my mind and brough him back to life. This was not in a Frankenstein way though. It all turned out to be a hoax and he fooled us all, especially the antagonist in Karl’s Last Flight.

    In 65 Below a young SEAL, really nice kid too, unexpectedly throws himself on a grenade to save his buddies. I really thought he’d be a recurring character too when the story started.

    You never know, but sometimes one must sacrifice a life to keep the story alive.

  6. In his informative book, Writing the Breakout Novel, agent Donald Maass suggests that one way to raise the personal stakes for a main character is to kill off his main ally. He says, “Push your characters to the edge, and they will pull your readers close.” So, I’m actually eying the ally characters in my WIP right now, deciding which one my character can least afford to lose. And then…off with his head!

  7. I had to do this in one of mine and I agree it can be gut wrenching. In my case the character was just plain extraneous. She did have a couple of redeeming qualities, but not enough to justify her existence. Wow, that sounds cruel doesn’t it? It’s one of the things that I like about being a writer. We get to play God. 😀

  8. Thanks for all the comments. Lynn Sholes and I have killed off many characters as part of our stories, but rarely to we have to yank one out of the manuscript with it having nothing to do with the actual plot.

    Neil, you’re right, we should keep her on injured reserve just in case she is needed in the next game.

    And as my co-writer commented, slicing out whole chapters is equally hard. Sometimes we’ve had to do it after we realized the chapter was backstory meant for us, not the reader. Words are hard to come by and even harder to delete.

    Like Douglas said, when it comes to killing our children, as a writer, it’s fun to play God.

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