Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Dealing with Unnecessary Characters

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A writer emailed me to ask, "How do you handle it when you have a secondary character who makes your story seem complete, but also seems superfluous.  You know, when his/her personality just isn't emerging like it should, and (s)he isn't really THAT necessary to the plot, but there are some things about him/her that you really do need.  How do you handle deleting him/her when you've already written the whole book, and are only now realizing that (s)he's  unnecessary?"

This is a wonderful question.

First let's briefly look at a few things that might make a character unnecessary:

  • They don't help the main character on his or her journey.
  • Their life seemingly revolves around the main character (they have no problems of their own)
  • They are never in conflict with the main character.

If a character isn't doing any of these things, you have three choices:

  1. Leave them written the way they are and frustrate your readers.
  2. Flesh them out more and make them matter.
  3. Cut them.

I try to avoid number 1 whenever possible, but I've done both number 2 and 3 with success. Both take work, especially if you've already written the book, but if you're committed to writing a good book, it's worth it.

First let's talk about fleshing them out. If you're going that route, here are some questions you can ask:

  • Can I give this character a story line of his/her own?
  • If I can, how can their story impact my main character's?
  • Can this character help my main character somehow? (Like provide them with something they need for their journey, either a piece of truth or wisdom or something tangible?)
  • How could this character be more in conflict with my main character?
  • Could they do something that challenges my main character to think about the world differently?

James Scott Bell talks about character journaling in his fabulous book.
If you're committed to keeping this character around, you might try doing a character journal for them and seeing if you can get them to "speak" to you about what their story is and why they matter. (That always sounds hokey when I talk like that, about characters speaking to us, but that really has been my experience during the character journaling process, that I unlock great bits about my secondary characters.)

Or if you decide they don't matter or that your story is already feeling too cluttered, you can cut them. There's no shame in that. In The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series, I cut about 3 of Skylar's friends, and even still when my agent read it, she was like, "Skylar has too many friends; you need to cut one." So I cut yet another, and it had zero impact on the story. The few things Caroline said in the book I was able to pass off to the other friends, Alexis and Lisa, which fleshed them out a bit more anyway. The biggest hassle was proofreading, since I sometimes referred to the "3 girls" and needed to make sure my numbers reflected cutting Caroline.

I suppose there's also a fourth option, which is to merge characters. In the manuscript I'm revamping right now, I discovered I have two antagonists - one named Molly and one named Holly and both of them are after my main character's boyfriend. This book has already been through a couple drafts, and for whatever reason, I'm just now catching this. Molly and Holly are going to be merged because the story certainly doesn't need both of them.

Have a writing question? Email me.


  1. Yep, I had to deal with this in ANNAPOLIS. I tried number 3, cutting all but one passing mention of a character, not giving her any page-time. (That would be equivalent of "screen time", LOL.) Then my editor said, "I want to see Alice. What's her story? Put her in." So I went back, put in what I'd taken out, and added even more--and now I really don't know how I thought the story could work without her, because she became in a lot of ways a mirror to my character. The one who made her question her drive, her reasoning, her strength. Glad I switched options in this case. =)

  2. This is an excellent post! Great question from the reader. I also LOVE that your two characters were Holly and Molly!! haha Which "olly" name did you stick with? :)

  3. Thank you so much for this post!!! It's been really helpful to me, because I sometimes struggle with making secondary characters work :D

    - Paige Taylor

  4. I really liked this one because I'm constantly trying to make sure that my characters are not only necessary, but real and people that my reader can love. The best part about a book in my opinion is the characters, so I always spend a little extra time with them. Making sure they have voices all their own, that their stories are real, and their problems relevant. This blog has helped me do that in more ways than before and I'm so grateful because now my book can be that much better. ;)

    One thing that I like to do to make sure that my characters aren't the same and all are different and vital, I place two characters in the same situation and ask questions like, "How does this person react to this differently than another person?" or "What would they try to do that's different from anyone else?" If I can't answer these questions a little differently for each of my characters, I know that I need to work on them more. It helps me out a lot, so I thought I'd pass that along. :)

  5. This was a great post! I'm working on a story right now with a BUNCH of secondary characters. Most of the are just necessary fillers, but there are these two secondary characters that seem to want a story of their own, that seem really real to me, but I didn't know how to work them into the story! Now I do! Thanks :)


  6. I literally JUST dealt with this problem in my novel. I ended up cutting the character, but it was such a tough decision. Great post! :-)

  7. Glad the post was helpful, guys!

    Clare, your suggestions are great. I need to be more intentional about thinking that through during the editing process. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Oh, great post, and ever so helpful. I have wondered about that, because I do want to have a full cast yet at the same time make each of them matter. Thanks :)

  9. It is oh so very hard to make all the characters feel like flesh and blood. In one of my second draft books there are a few characters that I'm considering cutting because they have absolutely no impact on the story and they're just "extras".
    In the second draft I'm going to try very hard to make sure each character has a purpose! lol

  10. Clare said something about putting her characters in situations, which fit into a line I'd spent the previous ten seconds thinking in.

    What if I took my characters and wrote them into lots of random, different scenes and situations -- one's that wouldn't go in my book, but so that I'd know who they are? Could be just me, but that sounds like a fun way to actually find out who these people are.

  11. Great post! Go Teen Writers is da BOMB!

  12. Ha ha. I especially like the fourth option, which is the one that I have to take, because I want one person's personality, but the other's looks. I would probably also add another step: prayer. Because things could get PRE-TTY messy without a whole lotta prayer and a whole lotta patience. But this post helps so much. Now I have more direction, even though I'm still not really looking forward to it (it's a lot of work to turn two characters into one!). :) Thanks for the help, Stephanie!!!

  13. Nicole, you asked about which "olly" I was gonna go with. It'll be Holly, because my brother-in-law now has a very serious girlfriend named Molly, and I don't want her thinking I named my antagonist after her :)

    Emii, sounds like a really fun idea! You might even wind up with some great new plot twists.

    Becki, that's a brilliant step to add. In fact, start with that one :)

  14. That's quite a good reason for choosing the name Holly. :P

  15. Hey Emii,
    I think that's a great idea, too, and who knows, you may decide that you want to actually put some of those random parts in the book! :)

  16. I echo, Faye.

    :) Word of warning. Emii, you might just come up with a new novel with that route! :) How fun would that be?

    I realize after talking it over with a writer friend that I probably have too many characters running around if she can't remember them all when they suddenly pop into a scene after five chapters out doing their own thing. Since I believe they all play a vital role I guess I'm going to play the merge game. :)

  17. This has been really helpful for me at the moment, I'm trying to write a novel and I have just realized that I can combine two people ( like Holly and Molly)

    Thank you:)

    - Suzy

  18. That prospect is insanely exciting, Rachelle!