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:
- Leave them written the way they are and frustrate your readers.
- Flesh them out more and make them matter.
- 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.|
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.