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?
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.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound