Cutting Your Characters

No characters were harmed in the writing of this article, though a few may be eliminated, as this Friday I’m talking about when and how to use fewer characters.

Too Many Characters?

We’ve all read books where we felt we needed a list of the characters to keep them straight.

Reader expectations about the number of characters in a book vary from genre to genre. There’s a lot more leeway for a giant cast in fantasy or literary fiction than in romance, for example.

Also, generally, some readers will make their own list of characters. Others will simply stop reading.

The best analogy I’ve heard (from story expert Lani Diane Rich, though probably other writers have said it) is that each named character you introduce is like placing another brick in you reader’s backpack. You need the bricks to build the story, but if you make it too heavy to carry, your reader will give up.

This factor also relates to reader comprehension.

Even if someone keeps reading, it’s less than ideal if halfway through your novel the reader must pause to struggle to remember a character last mentioned in Chapter 1.

Returning to the brick analogy, some readers will sort through all those bricks in the backpack to find the right one. Others will move on, hoping it all becomes clear. If doesn’t, they’ll be confused and unsatisfied.

A third issue is pace.

Each time you introduce a named character, you need a line or at least a few words of description or back story for that person. That takes up the reader’s time and mental capacity and slows the action.

Dropping Characters

When narrowing my cast of characters, I look for two or more who serve the same purpose or play the same role.

If your protagonist has two best friends, for instance, both of whom offer a sympathetic ear, join the protagonist on risky adventures, and/or argue with your protagonist about her choices, consider combining the two.

If you find yourself mixing up two characters as you write or you can interchange one character for another without the overall story or emotional arcs changing, that’s also a sign that you don’t need both.

On a scene level, watch for multiple characters who do or say the same types of things. I particularly struggle with this problem as I tend to want to write scenes as I think they would happen in real life.

For example, I’ve been revising my new mystery novel, The Worried Man. The protagonist’s boyfriend dies (not a real spoiler, as the death is foreshadowed in the novel’s first paragraph).

I had a scene at the wake where she interacted with several characters.

The conversations included conflict, including over whether each believed the boyfriend could have committed suicide or had started drinking again. Yet the scene as a whole dragged.

I finally realized that while in real life many people would attend the wake and Quille (my protagonist) would talk about those things with a lot of them, the reader didn’t need to see it. I narrowed the wake down to two scenes where Quille talks separately with two people about two different issues.

The Character With No Name

Sometimes you can solve the problem of too many bricks by avoiding naming a character.

Using unnamed characters is a good option when you need a character briefly and there’s no reason for the reader to know specifics.

“The waiter” doesn’t need backstory and may not need a physical description. “Henry” probably does.

Unnamed waiters, store clerks, co-workers, and even family members can help create atmosphere, move the plot, and convey information. By omitting their names, though, you limit the bricks in your readers’ backpacks and keep the story moving.

Caveat: If it becomes awkward using an unnamed character (for example, you’re repeatedly writing “Jacinda’s friend’s brother”), it’s probably a sign that the character needs a name.

That’s all for now.

Until next Friday —

L.M. Lilly

P.S. For more on characters, download your Free Character Creation Tip Sheet.

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