A lot of first-time novelists have the same problem as I did: too many characters. I wonder if this is partially because they hope that following all those characters will help to make the story longer, so they can call it a novel. Regardless, character clutter is a common mistake.
Let’s just face it: Seventy characters are downright unnecessary. Nobody can possibly follow that many characters and care about all of them. Even seventeen characters is a completely unreasonable number—unless you’re Ellen Raskin and you’ve just written The Westing Game, the only book I’ve found that breaks almost every major writing rule and still manages to achieve incredible brilliance. But most of us aren’t Ellen Raskin, so we have to keep to a smaller cast.
How I Whittled Down My Cast
Years later, when I wrote my Phoenix trilogy, I included about two dozen characters. Even though I was fourteen at the time, I had the maturity to recognize my mistake. In that story, I had two particular characters. One was a prophet whose visions and dreams were important for providing suspenseful hints about what was to come. The other was a young prince, kindly but weak, whose main role was to be the man that my heroine was expected to marry but did not want to marry. His function was basically to show how trapped my heroine had become in the political webs of her nation’s government.
During my rewrite of that story, I asked myself the right question: “Is this character absolutely necessary?” Of course, I would immediately answer: “Yes, he is! He does this, that, and the other thing in the story, and it wouldn’t be the same without him!” That’s when I had to ask a second question: “If his function is necessary, can that function be taken over by one of the more important characters?” Basically, I consolidated the roles of my characters.
Using this process, I discovered that the old prophet was not necessary. I transferred his prophetic dreams and visions to my heroine without any major change in the story. In fact, it strengthened her character.
I also realized that the young prince was not necessary. He was mainly present in order to make the heroine feel trapped into doing things she did not want to do, but that function and that undertone of suspense could easily be created by any number of situations. So I deleted his character and focused on building the atmosphere I wanted through my existing characters.
Consider the function, not the character.
This was all made possible because of that lesson that I learned when I was twelve years old: Constrict the cast only to the essential characters. Let them do all the work. If you add too many characters, you spread out the action and the richness of detail too much, so that even your main characters seem bland. When you focus on a core group of characters, you must condense all that complexity into those few, and it makes them that much more memorable.
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I write YA/adult fantasy & sci-fi that explores fantastic new worlds, with stories that burn through the darkest realities with hope and redemption.
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