Monday, 2 July 2012

Not All Characters Deserve To Be In The Story


It’s pretty easy to overpopulate a story.

Usually, it’s to make things seem realistic (an office should have people in it, a party should be crowded).

Sometimes it seems like a clever ploy (with 73 suspects the reader will never guess who the murderer is!).

Or it can be a way to give different types of readers someone to root for. These characters are the love story, these guys provide the adventure, this one will appeal to older women, this one to comedy fans...

Too many characters often make a story hard to follow, confuse the reader and create unnecessary complications. But once they’re in, taking them out can seem daunting, like pulling at a single loose thread that ends up unravelling the whole cardigan.

It’s really not that hard, though.


Here’s what you need to do. Go through the manuscript cutting out scenes or combining six guys into one as required, and do it with no regard for logic or narrative cohesion. You now have many places where the story doesn’t make sense. Go through it again, and every time you come to one of these places that doesn’t make sense, invent something that does make sense.

The problem won’t be coming up with alternative ideas — you came up with the original version, so you’re hardly new to making stuff up — the problem will be the thoughts in your head. It won’t work. You just know it. You haven’t actually tried it, but you know it.

Well, that’s because part of your brain is an idiot who likes to convince you nothing is possible, nothing will work out and you aren’t capable of anything good, so why even bother?

My advice is don’t listen to idiots. That feeling that things have to be this way? Ignore it. This is fiction, nothing is impossible.

If Roberta and Carla seem too similar and serve the same function in the story, and you can see that, but you have a scene where Roberta invites Carla to a party that’s key to the plot  and if you combine the characters into one person who is going to invite her to the party now that Roberta doesn’t exist?  The answer is simple: work it out. Assume you’ll come up with something when you need it, and you will.

It’s always before you make the cut that it seems a terrible idea. Afterwards you can’t remember what you were so worried about.

It may seem to you there’s only one way the story can work,  but that’s because that’s the only route you’re familiar with. Changing one element doesn’t mean changing everything. It doesn’t matter how integrated everything looks from where you’re standing. You just need to stand somewhere else and you’ll see.

Nothing in a story is essential. You may choose to have things a certain way. You may prefer them like this or that. But there is no character or plot point or setting that can’t be replaced with something at least as good.

It may require some jiggery-pokery. It may be tedious to go back and rewrite large chunks of your tale, but it will never be impossible no matter how much the voice in your head tells you so.

Just because you have worked out a set of motivations for things to happen the way they do, doesn’t mean it's set in stone, even if it feels more secure to act like it does. You made it up before, make it up again.

If the thing driving Matt through the story is Jeff’s murder, and you need to cut Jeff out, you can still keep Matt motivated to do whatever he needs to do. You simply have to work it out. Yes, it will be a lot of extra effort, but turning a story that doesn’t work into one that does is always going to take a lot of effort.

George has to live in New York because he’s a New Yorker and that’s how you envisioned him from the start. He’s real, he lives in NY, he would never live anywhere else. Moving him to LA will change the story on a fundamental level. Yeah? So change it on a fundamental level. Why would that be a bad thing? In fact, if you have a story that’s confusing people, the fundamental level would seem to be the best level to make your changes.

Making drastic changes is a key part of rewriting and improving a story. You can’t be afraid of change. That doesn’t mean your changes will definitely improve anything—it’s quite possible to replace one bad idea with another—but if things aren’t working, if you’re getting meh kind of responses, people telling you it’s “all right, I suppose” then small fixes and line edits aren’t going to do much good. If readers get confused or can’t follow who’s who and what their role is, get your axe, put on a hockey mask, and start swinging.
 If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.

21 comments:

KatieO said...

I don't mind lots of characters in a story (think of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or Game of Thrones) but you're right in that they do have to make sense and further the story. Naming each and every coworker in the office and giving them each a backstory probably doesn't help the plot...

great post!

mooderino said...

@Katie - If you are intentionally writing an epic story with many characters that's perfectly fine, you just have to learn how to make those characters distinct and memorable. Dickens and the Russians did it pretty good.

PT Dilloway, Superhero Author said...

I talked about this over two years ago. So anything I have to say is in that blog entry: http://roguemutt.wordpress.com/2010/03/09/terrible-tips-tuesday-downsizing-characters/

mooderino said...

@PT-thanks for letting us know.

Susan Oloier said...

So I'm revising my current ms with Donald Maass's book. One of his exercises is to cut one or more of your characters. I cannot do it! I'm hoping it's because I've been writing for so long, I know how to minimize unnecessary characters. I hoping it's NOT simply based on my fear.
Good advice in your post, though.

mooderino said...

@Susan-cheers.

Margo Berendsen said...

Oh dear, I need to return to ye ol manuscript and consider whether I can cut or combine some characters.... you're quite right, if you think you've got everything polished and it's still getting meh responses, this might help.

Fairchild said...

Ha! Yes. I blogged about this too. Characters and Purpose. It really is difficult cutting extra characters, but it almost always needs to be done.

mooderino said...

@Margo-Easy to add them in, less easy to get them out.


@Fairchild-once you hack them out in ugly fashion things get a lot easier. They aren't there in front of you pleading for their lives, for a start.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

I was just thinking the other day that I have too many people in my Camp NaNo ms. And isn't Jason, from that pic above, the one that roams around a wooded campsite, slicing and dicing...? Hmm... :)

mooderino said...

@Madeline-maybe it's time to release your inner serial killer.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I've done this in my WIP and the character reduction was worth it. For many bit characters, I gave their role to a secondary character or another bit character (i.e. they received a character promotion). It was easy to do.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Properly outlining a story before starting can help to eliminate a lot of these issues before the writer even starts to write.

sylverblaque said...

The title says it all! But it's so funny how we can't see it until someone else does...

Dalya Moon said...

When I'm reading, and a character is introduced by name, I make an effort to remember that name, figuring it's important. But if it turns out he was only there once, to sell her the bacon, I get annoyed that I tried to play the memory game with a first and last name plus distinguishing details. Sometimes the clerk should just be the clerk!

My novels are sparsely populated. Helps me keep them all straight too!!

mooderino said...

@ciara-a detailed outline can prevent a lot of problems.

@sylver-goes for a lot of life, not just writing.

@Dalya-it's also annoying when all the single-appearance characters in the story turn up together in the last few chapters and I'm supposed to remember who they are.

LD Masterson said...

But why is it the one that could best be cut is the character you've fallen love with?

And I love "jiggery-pokery".

cleemckenzie said...

I'm with LD Masterson about loving, "jiggery-pokery." He beat me to saying that!

As to too many characters, I agree that the Russians and Dickens already did that and did it very well. I think I'm limited by my skills and the readers I'm aiming for (young adults and middle grade readers). And if I do a little "over-populating" I must introduce those minor characters slowly and carefully so I don't overwhelm the reader or me!

Excellent post as always.

mooderino said...

@LD-who doesn't enjoy a little jigger-pokery?

@clee-cheers.

Diane Carlisle said...

One of the features of WriteItNow is that you can relate your characters and then display them in a linked map to show the relationships. If one character is only linked to the main character in one scene, time to ask yourself, "Why do I even have this character?" :)

Great topic!

I also selected you for two awards. Come get em!

mooderino said...

@Diane-thanks very much.

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