Getting Rid of a Character

I’ve spent most of today watching episodes of Burn Notice.  (It’s been a nice little Season 6 marathon, thanks to Netflix.)  The last couple of episodes have seen the departure of some of the people we’ve come to know, if not love, and it got me thinking about how we as authors rid ourselves of characters in novels.

What?  You never need to get rid of a character in your story?  Pish.  Peripheral characters wear out their welcome, henchmen have to be disposed of, redshirts need to be sacrificed.  Even beloved secondary characters must be let go if they are preventing our protagonist from reaching a goal or developing independence.  (Dumbledore, anyone?)  These folks don’t always have to die, but they do need to leave the stage.

Here are a few ways that you can help someone to their exit.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, so feel free to add your own in the comments!

Ah, death.  This is a classic way of getting rid of a character, especially if you want them to be permanently gone.  (Of course, depending on your method of killing someone off, you could explain it away and bring them back.  Gandalf, anyone?)  This leaves a lot of room for creativity as well as plot advancement.  Shot by a sniper?  Sure.  Poison in their wine?  Why not?  Nasty lab accident?  If you’ve got a lab handy and don’t mind collateral damage, might as well.  Passed away quietly in their sleep?  Aren’t you a sweetheart.  Besides getting rid of someone for good, it also shows your readers that you’re not afraid of bringing in a little death when you need it.

Otherwise Indisposed
If you’re not interested in killing someone (maybe you need her later, or he just isn’t worth making a scene) there are always methods for making a character unavailable.  She could be injured or ill, and confined to a hospital.  He could get arrested, or be ordered to stay home by a spouse.  I recommend caution if you are contemplating kidnapping; depending on your protagonist, you might become obliged to rescue the hostage.  Overall, though, this method of eliminating someone gives you a lot of latitude.  You can write a scene describing what happened, or just have another character mention it in passing.

Called Away
This one works particularly well for tertiary or peripheral characters.  They have lives outside of that of your main character, and sometimes those lives become more important.  Military personnel can be deployed elsewhere and law enforcement can be reassigned.  People can get new jobs, or their families can move away.  Keep in mind that you can either let them depart gracefully when they are no longer needed, or you can take advantage of this to leave your protagonist in the lurch at a critical time.

Dismissal/Parting Ways
This is the “Later, dude, thanks for your help” or “It was so nice to meet you” option.  Sometimes characters just go their separate ways; lives change, people graduate and go to different colleges, the airplane lands and the friendly chit-chat is over.  If one character works for another, or is subordinate in some way, the boss can let the unnecessary person go from the project (and the story).  Both of these methods can be done either in a friendly way or a hostile one, and it’s up to you as an author to shape the impact on any characters left in the tale.

Honestly, most of the time there is a natural way for you to get your unnecessary characters out of the picture, and you won’t have to analyze the how and why.  You may be asked by a reader to explain the choice, but by then you should be able to consider what you did and discover why (if you don’t know already).  It is fun to think about, though!