Killing Your Darlings: In Memoriam of R.J. Foley

It was mid-January when I received the fateful email from the in-house editor at Heuer Publishing. I’d spent a couple months face-deep in my manuscript for Knights of the Square Table working out issues to improve the story, tighten dialogue, and tip my hand a bit more that Merlin was a Neutral Evil type all along (and in the process, took some inspiration for his improved characterization from Medium-Place Mindy St. Claire on The Good Place — thank you, Michael Schur). Princess Jacqueline’s arc had been solidified into the closest thing I’ve ever written to tragedy. It was exhausting getting back into a nearly decade-old script like that and was happy to be done. I’d been assured all along that the editorial issues with The Thousand-Year Rose were far less involved, as both plays were on track to be published simultaneously in February.

With Knights completed, I was ready to tackle any small thing they needed me to in order to get The Thousand-Year Rose ready for publication. Other than tightening my wordiness on occasion or cutting sequences that didn’t really add anything to the story, they had only one suggestion for me in their brief email. But when I first read this line, it felt like a gut punch:

“We strongly suggest cutting RJ”

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Chris Miller as RJ Foley, Emily Castronova as Vivian. Conestoga Valley Middle School, 2017

Ryan Joseph Foley. RJ. Oh God, I thought, how do you do The Thousand-Year Rose without RJ? To anyone who has read my script since publication, you will know that this story ends with me pulling the trigger and very easily writing him out of the play — and standing by the suggestion they gave and the decision I made. In fact, you might think (as I do now that I think like a professional producer), “How on earth did you cram more characters into the play before then? 13 actors minimum is way too many for a play as it is” But hoo-boy did it take some re-examining of what Rose was trying to accomplish before I got there.

RJ was one of, if not my absolute favorites and the audience loved him in both the Wheaton College (played by then-freshman Michael Melter. We hand-waved the fact that the obviously young adult Melter was playing a child by having another character say “Puberty hit you like a truck, sir”) and the Conestoga Valley Middle School productions (played by then-8th grader Chris Miller). He is the ten-year-old brother of the shy teenager Scott Foley who stumbled into Kimmi and Scott’s quest for the lost treasure of Hanenbough in the same way as Diana in the previous scene and Boggs a couple scenes later. I wanted to write a cute small character who didn’t annoy or ruin the show in the way Scrappy-Doo ruined Scooby-Doo or Cousin Oliver ruined The Brady Bunch — and I believe I succeeded.

Michael Melter is third from right as RJ Foley. Puberty hit him like a truck

I love RJ. I based him directly on my dear friend, RJ Boyle, starting my trend of not bothering to

change the names of characters based on people I love — (IdaLynn Marble from See Amid the Winter Snow says hi). RJ (both the fictional and the real-life) is a character who embodies simple, childlike kindness on an individual level, going out of his way to hug everyone he meets and often telling people they smell good. In fact, in the first productions of The Thousand-Year Rose, it is his kindness toward Vivian that gets her to betray her sisters and join Kimmi’s crew, since Kimmi, Scott, and Diana are unwilling to trust her initially due to the witches’ threats at the theater a couple scenes earlier. It made complete sense originally to introduce a new character not directly privy to the earlier events to show kindness to the witch and get her to use her power for good — which that display of kindness, I’d once thought, was essentially what the play hinged on.

But that wasn’t the issue with keeping RJ in the play — it’s that he didn’t have a purpose beyond that single scene, and that was the real problem. Once Vivian joined the party, RJ ducked right back into the background and had a few funny lines here and there, but nothing relevant to the plot beyond the Act One Finale. There were simply too many characters on stage and everyone had a clear reason to be there except him. Especially once my editor showed me a cut of the script that removed all his lines from the second act that killed the pacing of a few scenes, I realized there was a better way to do this show — and that meant killing my darling RJ (not literally — I did not write a death scene for an innocent child and to my knowledge, as of the publishing of this blog post, my friend RJ Boyle is alive and well).

My friend, RJ Boyle, is alive and well. To my knowledge

So then I suppose the only question was: how did the play become stronger by writing him out? I didn’t want RJ — a character I adored — to be written out in vain. Let’s take a look at what this play is trying to accomplish:

Three witches (Abigail, Ciera, and Vivian) are trying to find the lost treasure of Desrosier in Hanenbough, Ireland, which is sealed by the Thousand-Year Rose that will bloom this year only for one with a pure heart. The other two witches are abusive toward Vivian. Kimmi Larkin arrives in Hanenbough also looking for the treasure. The witches notice Kimmi and decide they will kidnap her to get the treasure and take over the world. While Kimmi bears a lot of similarity to Abigail in that she’s resourceful, snarky, and quick-witted, she is kind and brings people together. Vivian notices that Kimmi is kind and betrays her sisters to join her at the Act One Finale. Kimmi’s kindness draws goodness out Vivian and Vivian ends up being the pure heart that makes the rose bloom in the end.

The true heart of the play comes from Vivian’s relationships with Abigail and Kimmi. Rather than having RJ accidentally show a witch kindness, I have Kimmi see how troubled Vivian is when Vivian goes to abduct her and speaks to the human behind the “wicked witch” archetype, intentionally being kind to a lonely person. A moment of woman-to-woman connection. The story is about Kimmi drawing goodness out of the people she meets, and Vivian leaving an abusive situation for relationships in which she’s valued. I can’t believe at one point I took that big damn hero moment from Kimmi and had given it to anyone else. It makes Kimmi and Vivian’s stories stronger and makes the script match the story I thought I was telling.

Look, writing is hard. You get ideas and you get stuck on them as you create them, and even once you see how they work on stage or on the screen, it’s hard to change them. I think the biggest thing I’ve learned in the growing process as a writer has been that anything — yes, anything — can improve. You have to find that balance of standing your ground on the things that are important and to not hold as tight of a grip on the rest. Not every piece of the story is vital — even the things that you think are. So thank you, editors at Heuer Publishing, for pointing out what was no longer necessary in my script!

I’ll fondly remember RJ Foley — but I happily said goodbye to him tell the best version of The Thousand-Year Rose. And it’s not a goodbye forever — I have a fun, well-fleshed-out character concept to include into a future project someday!

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