Writing Challenge #17: Cutting Back on Minor Characters

Writing Challenge #16 focused on using organic metaphors to lend your minor characters more personality. This one is about the opposite–dealing with too many minor characters.

Is your novel-in-progress full of bit players who are sitting around doing very little to advance the story? If so, you might want to combine a few of them or use your author eraser and make the ineffectual ones disappear.

Often we invent new characters to pop up and resolve a story problem or to deliver an important piece of information. These can bump a reader out of the story because they’re not developed, they act like cliches, or, worse, they are confusing due to other minor characters with similar roles or similar names.

Sometimes it’s necessary to get rid of a major character. A number of years ago, I learned a huge lesson when my friend Julia Stoops decide to eliminate one of her point-of-view characters. (You can read more about that in her Seven Questions interview.)

Here’s today’s challenge. Pick a character in your work-in-progress, and use these questions to evaluate whether that person is necessary to your story:

  • How does this character move the plot forward? If you’re looking to remove a major or semi-major character, write a rough synopsis of your plot. How often does that character show up and do something important?
  • Look at a few scenes involving your character and the protagonist. Does your protagonist come away from the scene feeling better, worse, or the same about the situation? If the answer consistently is “the same,” then think about eliminating the character or changing him/her into a more active participant.
  • How does this character affect the antagonist and the other characters in the novel?
  • Are there other characters performing the same role that your character plays? Can you combine two people who perform similar roles?

Thanks to jmmcdowell for inspiration! She commented on the last challenge about her recent experience with editing out excess characters, and that’s what prompted this challenge.

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1bhaB-K1

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
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22 Responses to Writing Challenge #17: Cutting Back on Minor Characters

  1. If book has characters who pop in just to move things forward, I always think of Blomkvist’s daughter in the Dragon Tattoo book. She appears halfway through the book, just to give Blomkvist a key clue to the mystery he’s investigating, and then she’s never mentioned again. Blomkvist isn’t interested in her (and neither is the author), but there she is.

    In the movie, they wisely eliminated the daughter and had Salander discover the clue instead. Blomkvist doesn’t know who she is, but she’s following his investigation by hacking into his computer and reading his notes. She wants him to solve the mystery, so she emails him the meaning of theclue, which is the first communication between them. A much better solution, in a few different ways.

    One thing I worked on in my most recent story (Stevie One) was trying to limit the characters as I was writing, rather than having to go back and prune them later.

    • Great point about Blomkvist’s daughter, Anthony. You’re always excellent at pointing out perfect examples in books and movies. It makes so much more sense to assign that role to Salander.

      Stevie One is on my list! I loved the beginning of it and ended up dropping away due to family responsibilities and some editing work. There’s only so much computer time in my life these days, but I’ll get back to it and see what you mean about how you limited characters.

  2. susielindau says:

    Great and timely advice! I made a storyboard yesterday and listed my characters. I was considering deleting a couple and now I will!

    • Oh excellent, Susie! I’m curious about your storyboard. Did you draw everything or make lists? How does it look? I’ve only mapped out one novel (my WIP) using the Hero’s Journey and it was a fascinating process. Enjoy your deleting!

  3. robincoyle says:

    This is timely for me as well. My sister was a beta reader and she asked about an unnamed boyfriend who appears early in the story. He plays a bit part and she wondered why I didn’t name him. I didn’t because he gets about 8 paragraphs of stage time. Maybe be he needs to be fired!

    • I learned about not naming characters last year when my novel group held a critique night. Everyone talked about putting as few names into the query as possible and to focus attention on the protagonist. I wrote and rewrote (and rewrote again) and as a result of losing the names of supporting characters, my query’s that much stronger. I can see how mentioning a boyfriend in passing would work without giving him a name, but you could also fire him! Does it say anything about your character that she has a boyfriend in the early part of the story? If she ends up with a different boy, or has relationship issues, or there’s another tie-in, maybe he’s worth saving and naming!

  4. jmmcdowell says:

    Thank you for the nod! 🙂 Cutting characters isn’t always easy if we’ve grown attached to them. But you’re so right—if another character can do the work or play the role, it may be a good idea to combine them. Nineteen removed from one of my WIPs so far. And there could be more as I continue on the current draft…. Hopefully other writers don’t have as many unnecessary folks in their stories. 🙂

    • You were definitely my inspiration, jm! I can’t believe you’ve gotten rid of nineteen. Amazing! What genre is your novel? I have a lot of characters in my historical epic but I’m updating/modernizing the old-fashioned novel, and those had tons of characters. I’m also telling the story through omniscient POV and using some of those characters to take a look at my hero. Some will likely go on this round, but others are simply names saying things to evoke the kind of town chorus that’s present in Russian stories (Chekhov for instance). I’m using them to set up a them vs. me dynamic, where my protagonist feels alienated.

      • jmmcdowell says:

        This particular work is science fiction (time travel oriented). So it’s common to have a larger cast of characters. But I had too many. And I still might. We’ll see how Draft 3 goes over with readers.

        Your work sound like a very interesting idea. My husband’s a big fan of Russian writers, and he didn’t bat an eye at the number of characters I had. He’s used to books full of them. But others had a harder time. And I have to pay attention to that. But I will still end up with many more players than other novels of other genres typically have.

        • Sounds amazing, jm. Are you using the same beta readers or different ones? I love that you’re workshopping multiple drafts. That’s what I do in my novel writing group–we only read each other’s full-length manuscripts, no stories (unless they’re a collection), and it’s great to watch the feedback change as the drafts improve. I’ve only workshopped my current novel once with them, and it was the first 200 pages.

          I’m having so much fun with my novel. I only compared the village chorus idea to Russian authors because of reading James Wood’s book on writing, and he uses examples from Chekhov where I just sat up straight and said “YES! That’s what I’m trying to do.”

          • jmmcdowell says:

            I’ll work with some of the same people, but I wouldn’t mind adding someone with experience beta reading sci-fi novels. That’s one area I don’t have covered yet, and I think it could be helpful. When Draft 3 is ready, I’ll probably do a post to ask if anyone’s interested. I hope someone will be. 🙂

  5. Ihad to chuckle at your image–I also included a grass-invaded typewriter in today’s post. That speaks an enticing message, doesn’t it?

    Great advice. Readers can only assimilate so much information. Characters need to be meaningful or risk angering readers by wasting their time.

    • I smiled when I saw your image, Jacqui! I took this one about a year ago, when I started the writing challenge feature, because I love the idea of writing being a little overgrown and unruly. Sometimes characters get that way too!

  6. 4amWriter says:

    I used to have a truckload of characters in my novel. Most of them were just part of the setting, actually. And those are harder to cut, because for me, I think those minor characters can add flavor to the book, local color if you will.

    However, I also realized how hard it was for my beta readers to keep track of them. So, I like the rule that if they didn’t move the story forward or create tension in any way, out they went. Your suggestion about whether the protag felt differently after an interaction with minor character is really good, because that narrows the playing field even further.

    I had to comment on Susie’s video, I don’t know if you caught it–I took a weekend workshop with the same woman in that video, Mary Carroll Moore. And it was for storyboarding. Such a wonderful method at outlining and building your 3 act structure. I highly recommend it.

    • What you said about characters being part of the setting is exactly what I’m doing in my work-in-progress, Kathryn. Until now I’ve always felt the need to flesh out the bit players but in this epic historical book I’m allowing brushstroke characters are part of the fabric of the imagined community I’m writing about. So far most of them drop in for a few lines and disappear. I also have a few minor characters who are important enough that I tell the ending of their story when they’re not going to come back again. (So-and-so who leaves the community ends up in X situation later on and then dies in Y year.) It has been fun to figure out how to use that device.

      I may end up cutting minor characters later, possibly not so much due to confusion as due to having a huge novel! I got up to 120,000 words without finding the ending in my first draft… and am now apparently fleshing things out and making the chapters longer. Oops.

      As far as “better, worse or the same,” I might do a post about that. It’s a trick a writer friend picked up from an acting class she took. Think of two people interacting and how they feel about each other when the interaction is over. “The same” is fine for some scenes, but if that’s the only result of a certain character meeting with your protag, then something should change or the character can be cut.

  7. Guilie says:

    Awesome advice, Laura, as usual. I’m going to take this to the novel this afternoon and weed out a few minor characters that are taking up oxygen 🙂 I passed you the Kreativ Blogger award in recognition of the excellent tips you offer us. Unlike most awards, this one comes with no strings attached, haha. Thanks for the advice and insight!

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