Friday, April 4

Sorry, Your Services are no Longer Required: Eliminating Characters

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

It's not uncommon for the number of characters in a novel to grow as we write that novel. We discover scenes need extra hands, or a walk-on role turns out to be a fantastic secondary character. Or we're writing a series and after a few books, we realize the cast list has become unmanageable.

I ran into this while writing the third book in my trilogy, Darkfall. I had the main characters, the major supporting characters, old characters from book one, added characters from book two, and then all the new characters for book three. Suddenly, the scenes were all way too crowded.

I needed to do a little character pruning, but who got to stay and who had to go?

If you're facing too many characters and need to send some packing, here are a few tricks that worked for me.

Let one existing character do the work instead

If you find yourself creating a new character for a scene, see if an existing character can do the job instead. Look as your smaller walk-on roles, which can often be fleshed out some to include the new tasks needed for the story. Perhaps what has to be done is a skill a larger character might have, or a problem they caused. Instead of adding a character, you can add a layer to someone else and deepen both the story and the character.

For example, my protagonist Nya encounters a character from book one early on in book three. This character is important because some plot events hinge on them. Later, Nya encounters another character who also played an important role. Problem was, Character One didn't really show up again and Character Two needed more page time to do the job effectively in the end. 

Since Character One was important for what they were, not who they were, it made sense to put Character Two into the earlier scene and cut Character One from the novel. I had to tweak the dialog since these two characters didn't sound anything at all alike, but the events of the scene played out the same, just with a new person in that role. It was a great solution to a problem, and actually deepened the overall story by bringing Character Two's past into the novel earlier.

In Your Story: Try looking at the reason that character is there and see if someone else can fill that role. Often, the who doesn't matter as much as the what. If your reasons for a character being there are general (and not specific to that character), you can likely accomplish the same thing by using an existing character.

(Here's more on determining if you have too many characters)

Reconnect a smaller character to the bigger picture

Sometimes you'll have a character you want to use, but they don't seem to do all that much. You have reasons for wanting them in there (often dealing with backstory or world building), but they cause more problems than they solve. They feel unconnected to the story because they're unconnected to the plot.

There was a character from book one I wanted to reuse in book three. Every time I tried to insert them into a scene it felt like, "oh, and here's this other person over there." They were part of the cast, but they didn't do anything. I needed to find a way to reconnect them to the story in general and Nya (and thus the plot) in particular.

For Darkfall, I used the world mechanics to reconnect them to Nya. Since I had to show how the world and the magic worked, this character gave me a great opportunity to do that and get that character back into the story. The character was also walking backstory for previous books, so that gave me another opportunity to remind old readers and tell new readers the critical information they needed about the series.

In Your Story: Try looking for characters from your protagonist's past that can help you explain or show an aspect of the story or world that is important, but feels awkward or forced when done with a new character. Characters with a past can also be useful to aid the current storyline and enhance the plot, especially if they bring trouble with them.

(Here's more on how much page time supporting characters need)

Show clingy characters the door

These are characters who have played roles in the past, and the logic of the story says they'd be in a particular scene, but there's just no graceful way to get them into the plot. They're in the way and might even hijack your plot.

For me, these were major characters' family members and people Nya had rescued. If they weren't there readers would notice, but every time I put them into a scene, the story went off track. My solution? I sent them away. I looked for plausible reasons why they had to leave, and was able to use that "sorry kid you gotta go" scene to enhance another aspect of the story and deepen one of the thematic layers.

In Your Story: Try looking for characters who are there because it feels like they have to be. There's a decent chance these characters irritate you, because you know they're mucking things up and you're trying to shove them in because of story logic (like the hero wouldn't cast off his faithful servant, but he's just too much of a hassle to deal with if he's always around). Look for ways to remove them from the story in a plausible way. Why wouldn't the protagonist want them around?

(Here's more on determining if that minor character can become more)

Get rid of characters you don't need

Cutting out characters is by far the easiest way to reduce your cast. Try making a list of every character in the novel, starting with the main characters, and moving down to the minor named walk-ons. Who doesn't need to be there? Maybe one of the minor named walk-ons can become "the server" instead of Maria the waitress, or the conversation in the diner can be moved elsewhere where another person isn't needed.

Subplots are also a great place to look for unneeded characters, especially if you're doing some overhauling of the story itself. Kill a subplot and every unique character in that subplot can also go.

In Your Story: Try looking at subplots your instincts are telling you might not be needed. Odds are these are subplots or scenes you like, and are actually good scenes, but aren't serving to the story (and you're doing back flips to keep them in because you really like them). They could even be scenes you strip down to the bare essentials and find homes for them with different characters.

(Here's more on fleshing out flat characters)

Large stories naturally accumulate a lot of characters. Streamlining the cast list can be tough, but sometimes you find much a much better story once you cut away the dead weight.

Does your current WIP have too many characters? 

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. Great post! Question...Should characters be given names and an identity if their sole purpose is to get killed?

    This sounds so wrong. LOL

  2. Good advice! Some of my NaNo characters are going to have to go... the cast is too big!

  3. E. Arroyo: It does sound bad! It really depends on the situation. If the death is supposed to matter to the reader, as in you want them to feel bad about the death and have an emotional reaction, then the character who dies needs to matter to them in some way. They have to like them. It doesn't have to be much if you can link it to the protag. For example, I kill a young girl in Blue Fire, and I name her, but I also and made her a person in a situation Nya could *really* relate to. So the reader hopefully feels the same emotions as Nya does since they know her. However, the goal wasn't for the reader to feel bad about the girl dying, it was to feel for Nya and what that death meant to her. Does that make sense?

    If it's just a random death that just shows some aspect of the world, but doesn't matter so much who dies, just that someone important for X reason dies, then you don't have to name them.

    Su: They do tend to grow during a first draft, don't they?

  4. I cut a character when I realised that a more major character could have done the same thing if he'd just stayed where he was for half an hour longer.

    You have to be careful to change the voice though.

  5. This is always hard for me because I get attached to my characters (most of my story ideas come from a bit of dialogue I hear in my head one day and suddenly I can "see" the character and it all blooms from there).

    I may cut characters from stories but I never get rid of them. I keep an Excel spreadsheet of all my characters and their traits/abilities/etc. and sometimes all I need to do is move 1 character out of WIP A, make them a vampire or suchlike and move them into WIP B and that fixes 2 problems with 1 troublesome character. Otherwise they just sit in my stock pile of cool characters that will one day hopefully do something productive.

  6. Tahliane: Definitely watch that voice. In fact, if you can swap characters around and not change the voice, then that's a great red flag that your characters aren't as individual as they could be.

    Alex: That's a great idea. Like a writing green room, where characters are just waiting for their role.

  7. Great post! Thanks for bringing it back. It confirmed for me a decision I made about my WIP. To reduce overcrowding, I removed an entire POV character. The reverse-snowball was a gift to the book. (1) It gave the "booted" character's primary counterpart a more laser-focused role, which (2) provided more depth of character in a subplot involving that primary counterpart and a third character. Once that third character moved closer to the primary light on the stage, it allowed me to (3) move him into the protagonist's world, which prevented adding somebody there and crowding out that world. That led to (4) an unexpected turn of events for my ANTAGONIST. This roving character allowed me to show that softer side of my antagonist and further develop his character. He also gave my protagonist pesky problems that were different from (but connected to) the primary Hero Hurdles. I added while subtracting. Again, reverse snowball. I eliminated one POV, and several things became tighter, clearer, and more relevant to the story thread. When I recently did a one-sitting read after waiting a few weeks, I was surprised at how streamlined and dead-ahead the story flowed. Bottom line: The ditched POV sucked too much air.

    I should mention/give a shout out to Janice for posting great articles about revision and accepting that you can't keep reading past a certain trouble spot without finally addressing it. I always kinda knew this one POV had to go. I liked her. It was tough sending her packing. My compromise was to keep her in the story without the POV baggage. It actually made her more interesting. We're never in her head, so our view of her is more shrouded.

    Meanwhile, this is off- yet really on-topic, but Janice's articles about showing vs. telling can do wonders for streamlining your work. I did an entire edit looking for things like "decided to," etc., and basically hunted down and killed every show/tell example she gives. My word count dropped, and I know a lot of that streamlined read had to do with losing all of that "telling" clutter.

    Props on Fiction University, Janice!

    1. Aw, thanks so much! Our writers' instinct is usually spot on, and if something keeps nagging us, there's a reason.

      Love your story about cutting the POV. That must have been a huge amount of work, but it sounds like it was the right call and made for a much stronger book. Kudos for cutting that POV! It's daunting to even consider that let alone do it.

  8. Excellent article, so true, and something I think we are ALL guilty of.

    1. Thanks! We sure are. Characters have a way of appearing out of the woodwork.

  9. Thanks for the refresher, Janice!

  10. Not yet, but give me a few thousand words and it will.... ;)

    The tip about subplots is probably going to be the one I need to remember most, but all of these are going on my "running edits" list. Thank you!

    1. LOL maybe you'll hold them back now. :)

  11. A good lesson for us all. It is easy to get overloaded with characters.

    1. And the longer the book or series, the easier it is to add more.

  12. I don't think I have too many characters. Several I'm still building on though. I do have a question that you may be able to answer. Approximate how many characters is good for a story that does not have a sequel to it?

    1. That's hard to say because every book is different. A story focused on a single character might not have as many as a story with an ensemble cast. It also depends on how many are plot-affecting characters vs. minor roles.

      I've personally noticed that scenes usually become unruly when I have more than four or five characters in it, so you might try using your scenes as a guide. If you notice a lot of scenes with a lot of characters and it's a little hard to keep track of everyone and make sure everyone has a say, that could be an indication of too many. Especially if they're all major characters or ones who appear in most of the scenes.

      Another thing you can check on is if you have a lot of characters who appear for one or two scenes, get a lot of page time to flesh out, then are never heard from again (or show up once in the end). That could also indicate extra characters.

  13. Good advice, sometimes minor characters get out of hand, appearing everywhere. Thanks

  14. I tend to have big casts...but I also tend to have big plots, and the main thing I've tried to do to balance this is not keeping all the characters in the same place. At the end, which I'm planning but kind of worried about writing, I unfortunately get quite a few of them together. So I have to think up things for them to do in other places (standing guard, talking to people, being hurt and resting up, etc.) so that I don't have too many people in a room at a time...

    I'm curious. Do you have a number for how many is too many?

    1. I don't, because it really depends on the story (see comment above). But trust your instinct on too many in one place. That always warns me when I'm getting too many and need to cut back. If I have to do character gymnastics in order not to overwhelm then scene, odds are I need to cut or combine a few.

      Beta readers can also help spot unneeded characters, or let you know when they had trouble keeping everyone straight.