In Wednesday's post, Robyn Hood Black shared an exercise about testing the relationships of your characters to each other using cut out pieces of paper. I loved this idea, and it got me thinking that this was a great way to test a very common writing question:
Does my novel have too many characters?
This is hard to answer because "too much" is subjective. An epic high fantasy is likely to have more characters than a personal contemporary story. Even making a list of your characters isn't always helpful, because many will be walk on or throwaway characters, and knowing that, they carry less "weight" in a list. You might not even list them because they're so unimportant, yet they take up valuable room in the reader's memory.
My twist on Robyn's exercise can help you find the answer.
Step One: Take a sheet of paper and draw two boxes in the middle, evenly spaced apart. Write your protagonist's name in one box, your antagonist's name in the other. Add boxes if you have more than one of either. (If you find yourself adding a lot of boxes, you already know you have a problem)
(More on figuring out who your protagonist is here)
Step Two: Start adding boxes with the other character's names in them. Below the protagonist if they're directly connected to her, above the antagonist if they're connected to him. Put down:
- Major secondary characters first (friends, sidekicks)
- Then important characters (people the plot or story hinges on, but aren't hanging out with the main characters)
- Then minor characters (recurring people who play smaller roles and are seen multiple times)
- Then walk on characters (people in one or two scenes who don't do much, but have names anyway)
- Then any character who interacts with your protagonist or antagonist
(More on developing secondary characters here)
Step Three: Draw lines connecting the boxes. A solid line if the character directly interacts and affects the protagonist, a dotted line if they are connected more to someone who is connected to the protagonist. For example, when your hero is mugged by three thugs, and only one speaks to him and actually interacts in a meaningful way, he gets a solid connection line. The other two thugs would get dotted lines to the first thug, because they're connected to him, but really don't affect the protagonist much.
Step Four: Draw lines between any characters who are connected to each other so you can see the relationships.
What This Should Tell You:
- How many characters are in the book
- Which characters directly affect your protagonist and which ones don't
- Which characters might be good candidates to combine into one
Extra Tip: This could also be useful to see if a particular scene has too many characters in it, especially those hard-to-manage scenes with a group of people where everyone is chiming in about something. Who actually matters in that scene and who is just there to toss out a line?
Extra, Extra Tip: You could also do this with scenes to see which scenes move the plot and which are just duplicating what another scene is doing.
(More on combining scenes here)
What I like about this exercise is that it forces you to think about how the various characters are connected. Someone might feel like they're affecting the protagonist, but when you sit down and really look at it, they have no direct interaction with them at all. They're more connected to someone who is connected to the protagonist. That person might be a good candidate to cut, combine, or give more plot to so they do have a stronger connection (and possibly a deeper layer) to the protagonist and the story.
Sometimes a visual representation can provide more information than words on a page. And looking at our stories from a different perspective can allow us to see things we normally would have missed.