Sometimes even though you love them with all your heart, you might have to get rid of a character in your novel. Or even—gasp—a few.
So how do you know when you have too many characters?
Part of it is a bit subjective. It depends on your story.
But a big clue is that if the readers are having a hard time keeping track of who the characters are or remembering them? It means that you have work to do.
It might mean that you’ve fragmented the narrative with such a super large crew.
It might mean that you just haven’t made each character memorable enough or distinctive.
It might mean that your story is a bit flabby in a time (2021) where a lot of readers lean toward the story that’s lean.
Your first step is to think:
- Who is this story really about? Don’t get rid of those characters or character.
Now that you have that covered, think about:
- What other characters are really needed to tell this story?
- Go through your non-main characters (the ones the story isn’t really about) and ask yourself if you can get rid of them without ruining the story.
- If not, can you combine a couple of those characters into one character?
- If your story has more than one point-of-view, can you get rid of one of those POVS if that’s the issue. If your story feels fragmented to you or the reader, that is often the problem.
Janice Hardy has a great old blog post back from 2013 where she tweaks an exercise of Robyn Hood Black in order to determine if her novel has too many characters in it.
She has a lovely four step process that I’m going to share here.
“Step One: Take a sheet of paper and draw two boxes in the middle, evenly spaced apart. Write your protagonist’s name in one box, your antagonist’s name in the other. Add boxes if you have more than one of either. If you find yourself adding a lot of boxes at this stage, you probably have too many main characters.
“Step Two: Add boxes with the other character’s names. Put them below the protagonist if they’re directly connected to her, above the antagonist if they’re connected to him. Put down:
1. Major secondary characters first (friends, sidekicks)
2. Then important characters (people the plot or story hinges on, but aren’t hanging out with the main characters)
3. Then minor characters (recurring people who play smaller roles and are seen multiple times)
4. Then walk-on characters (people in one or two scenes who don’t do much, but have names anyway)
5. Then any character who interacts with your protagonist or antagonist who isn’t already listed
“Step Three: Draw lines connecting the boxes. Use a solid line if the character directly interacts and affects the protagonist, or a dotted line if they are connected more to someone else connected to the protagonist. For example, when your hero is mugged by three thugs, and only one speaks to him and actually interacts in a meaningful way, he gets a solid connection line. The other two thugs would get dotted lines to the first thug, because they’re connected to him, but really don’t affect the protagonist much.
“Step Four: Draw wavy lines between any characters who are connected to each other so you can see the relationships.”
On the podcast Tuesday, we’ll talk about another way to determine if your novel’s character needs to be there. But, you should check out Janice’s full blog because it’s really a great resource!
My little, creepy book baby is out in the world because who doesn’t want sad, quirky, horror with some romantic bits for the holiday season?
It’s a young adult novel (upper) called WHEN YOU BRING THEM BACK, please buy it!
It’s super fun.