Monday, May 21, 2012

Making Your Characters Matter

by Stephanie Morrill


A writer emailed me to ask, "I struggle with the amount of characters I have in my plot. Most of the time, I end up with too many. It makes it difficult to bring new important characters into the scenes. Is there a limit for the amount of characters in novels? If you had to work with a large amount, how would you write it? How would you bring them into the scene? Define relationships?"

This is something I used to really struggle with. (Several characters got cut from my debut novel, Me, Just Different. First by me, and then an additional one by my agent.)

There's no real official limit, and it just kinda depends on the story. Helpful, right? Since that's probably not, hopefully this will be:

It's not real life

My temptation to put too many characters in comes from my drive to want to make it real. In real life, my Starbucks barista is just the person who makes me coffee one night a week. My daughter's preschool teacher is someone I see once a week when I drop McKenna off at school. But in a book, it's best to combine roles whenever you can. If it's a novel, then the preschool teacher works a second job at Starbucks ... and has to work that job because the main character's husband fired her husband, so, by the way, she's the villain too.

You see what I mean? It gives the story a wonderfully tangled feel. 

For Me, Just Different, my original thought was that Skylar, who was the queen of the popular kids, needed tons of friends. After all, in real life, the popular kids always had tons of friends. She started with 7, which even I realized by the end was way too many. I whittled it down to 4, and then when I signed with my agent, she was like, "One of these friends has got to go." So Skylar wound up with 3 girlfriends and it works just fine.

So how do you decide who to cut? You ask:

If I cut this character, would anything change?

And if your answer is "No" or, "Well, I'd have to tweak this line and that line, but otherwise, not really," then they are cuttable.

If they're cuttable BUT you really, really love that character then you have a couple options:

  • Cut them anyway and rejoice that you're a real writer who can do the hard work
  • Transfer them for another manuscript
  • FIND a way to make them matter

If you're looking for a way to make them matter, spend some time brainstorming and fleshing them out like you might your main character. What are their goals? How do they need to change? What are some ways they can oppose the main character? What are some ways they can encourage them?

Do you find yourself having too many characters in your manuscript? How do you deal with it?

Other posts that might interest you:
Developing secondary characters
Researching your characters







26 comments:

  1. I don't like to think that I have too many characters. There are the two MCs and then a handful of main supporting characters. But what about the unnamed people that MUST come into the story at some point, like the stable boy, the prison guard, or the bar tenders daughter? I don't really consider them characters, just people that are necessary to move the scene from waling into the tavern to sitting down with a pint of ale. Would you say that we should try to cut out these people? Or are you just saying to keep an eye on your supporting cast and make sure they don't get to large?
    Thanks for a great post!
    ~Sarah Faulkner

    www.inklinedwriters.blogspot.com

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    1. Yeah, do we need to delete those nameless people? Becuase I've got alot of stable boys and soldiers running around.

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    2. Great question, Sarah and MaddieJ. Those are definitely necessary for populating your story world, like extras in a movie. Like you said, Sarah, this is more about the supporting cast than it is the extra bodies moving around the castle.

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    3. I like the way you put that, MaddieJ. :) I have a lot of my antagonist's servants running around, and I pretty much decided it was okay.

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    4. @Allison
      Haha, thanks Allison.
      Yeah, their necessary I think, because our antagonists are much too busy to be doing their own laundry etc;)

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  2. My first story had tons of characters, but I had alot of twists, where they weren't just some by-stander as originally thought, later they turned out to have some huge devistating role to my MC.
    My current work doesn't have near as many. A couple friends, and couple antogonists, and a couple just secondary characters.

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  3. In my trilogy I have, for the most part, the same characters, but their importance changes.

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  4. I've been wondering about this, since my book a has a lot of characters, but most of them are needed. I just noticed my two villains could be combined and were lacking in evil, therefore hurting my conflict, so I am cutting them and adding a different, much better villain for more conflict.

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    Replies
    1. I did that in one of my manuscripts and it made a whole lot stronger. :)

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  5. Wow! Stephanie.... thank you so much for this!
    I've been thinking over the last couple days that I need to cut my FMC's brother, Sahmo, from my story. He's like a puzzle piece that doesn't fit. Although I love his name and his personality and the way he dies at the end, he's absent for most of the story.

    I've really been hesitating about this because to cut him would mean that my FMC has NO FAMILY at all, which just seems too cliche. I'm thinking that's the route I'll have to take, though. :(

    This post really helped!

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    Replies
    1. Glad the post was helpful but sad for Sahmo :( Hopefully he'll fit better in another story.

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    2. Have you ever thought about combining him with another character? Maybe there's a big-brother figure whose shoes he could fill and vise versa. Or you could give him an important role that would add further dept to the whole story...

      Or you could just cut him. But I really love characters who die in the end. :D

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    3. Could you just add him in more often? Just write a couple extra scenes so he's a bigger part of the story, so his death at the end makes a bigger impact on the reader? I love it when characters die- dark I know- it adds something to the story.
      And yeah, your MC should probably have some kind of family.

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  6. Hmmm. I seem to have the total opposite problem - not enough characters! I have my MC, her brother, her mother, and a friend she meets, but that seems to be it. How should I add characters? Thanks!

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  7. Yes! I have this problem. My friends complain that I have to many interesting minor characters. At first I thought it might just be personal opinion, but now I've heard several times that the story feels incomplete because readers never find out what happens to people I intended to be relatively unimporant. *sigh* Guess I either need a longer, bigger scope story or a narrowed focus.

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  8. I have never, EVER had too many characters. Ahem, cough, cough--says the girl with a 50-person character list in the front of one of her Biblicals... but I blame history for that one! Many were extras though--you only hear their name once, and it's like saying, "Home, James." ;-)

    In another mucho-revised MS, I've cut my heroine down from having two siblings and a gazillion cousins to no siblings and 2 cousins. The more I work on it, the more characters get cut, LOL.

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    1. Anonymous - When I first started my current WIP, I had four living, breathing, present characters. The rest were either absent or dead. As the story progressed, however, interesting people just kept popping up until things are getting crowded! If you're in the first half of your story, just keep moving and maybe those extra charries will jump in all by themselves. Maybe you could even add an antagonist - mine ended up coming with a whole castle full of servants and advisers!

      On the other hand, I find stories with few characters can be fascinating.

      All that to say ... whatever works for you. :D

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  9. I've had some interesting experiences with characters in my WIP. Actually, I split one sub-villain into two, which ended me up with one of the halves turning good ... in my second draft I plan on combining one cliche character who plays a key role with one sadly underdeveloped and non-cliche character. Hopefully I'll get one important, well-rounded and unique character out of it!

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  10. When I was about 13, I had 20 characters that were in almost every scene, plus at least 15 talking animals that were there randomly. My WIP now has 12 characters, which is much easier to deal with.

    I remember asking myself, "Does the character matter?" Sadly, I had to cut quite a few because I had characters who were there because I thought the more the merrier.

    Thanks for the great post!

    ~ZA

    ~ZA

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    Replies
    1. Yeah, "the more the merrier" doesn't really apply in fiction, sadly.

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  11. Thank you so much for this blog, Stephanie! It has really helped me a lot! :)

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  12. Oooooo. We're one away from 400 followers. Neat-o.

    Now, this post was so helpful. I wish I had it months ago when I was combining characters, but this is definitely one for the storing-this-away-so-I-can-refer-to-it-later pile. :)

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  13. In the first draft of my WIP, I had a whole group of friends that only showed up in one or two scenes. Like you, I thought, "Well, I have a whole bunch of friends and acquaintances, so if I want my novel to be realistic, Finn has to have a lot of friends too." When I began rewriting, though, I realized that there were too many of them, especially since they weren't even secondary characters - they were more like filler characters. I felt that I had to have them, but not nearly so many! This time, I've got only one or two of those filler characters, and it's working fabulously so far. ;) Great post!

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  14. I'm just becoming a writer and i'm confused. :/ So much stuff, not enough room! Argg!

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