Monday, February 16, 2015

Is That Character Really Necessary?

Quick apologies: my weekend was oddly stressful, which means my thoughts are muddled. I really hope this post makes sense.

For the entire month of December (and most of January) I was trying to get a start on rewriting my WIP. It was painfully hard. Ya'll might remember last month when I wrote my post on Conversations with a Character, and finally managed to figure out where I was going wrong (when my character called me out on being lazy).

Then I looked at one of my characters and realized his presence was a bit odd. I didn't know anything about him. Who are you, Connor? I asked. And then I nearly fell back in my chair when I had that thought, What do you even do?

What dawned on me, then, was that this character--a strapping young man named Connor--actually wasn't necessary. His presence wasn't vital to the plot. I could replace him. As in: I realized I could take him out and put another character (who already had a large part in the plot) in his place, and nothing changed.

Whoa, right?

When writing a novel, everything's important: every word, every sentence, every dialogue, every setting, every character. We all know this, right? One of the problems comes, in my opinion, when looking at characters in particular, especially if you're already done with draft one and you've moved on to rewrites and edits.

That problem? You love all your characters as if you gave birth to them. Then you're editing and you start to wonder why you have so many characters and are they all absolutely needed to make your novel's world go 'round?

It's hard, but that's why you actually should wait for editing to do this, since you're already in a heartless, kill-your-darlings state of mind, anyway.

To solve the dilemma of whether a character is actually really needed, ask yourself (and I did ask myself this) one question: What does that character have to offer?

It's a tough question, particularly when you look at books in a series. Take Harry Potter or even Maggier Stiefvater's The Raven Cycle into consideration: a large cast of characters, and some of them don't have much to do until book two/three/etc. In this case, you have to be willing to look to the future of your novel to determine whether the character in question has anything that might be useful to you or to the story line.

For the purposes of this post, simply look at your character and their purpose (every character has a purpose: protagonist, antagonist, foil, anti-hero, hero; they're the comic relief, they're the gatekeeper, they're the secret keeper. Get the point?) and ask yourself if there's any other character that can take on that exact role, or can carry out that character's duties in addition to their own without anything changing.

If the answer to that question is yes, then perhaps you might want to reconsider their presence.

To be honest, when looking at the necessity of a character it's usually the side and minor characters that go under the ax. Main characters are easy: of course nobody else can do their job (and if somebody else can do their job, then you should probably reconsider them, as well).

If one of those major characters can do the job of a minor, or if you can combine multiple minor characters, odds are that's what needs to be done. As I already said: in my WIP, I was able to replace Connor with another character with none of the consequences changing; the same ripple effects spread out among my other characters. Which meant that Connor wasn't really necessary. It tightened my plot more than you can imagine.

So that's my quick post on determining the necessity of a character. How do you deal with the realization that your cast might be too big?

Tweet It:

Blogger @Rae_Slater talks characters, and how to tell if they're all really as crucial to your plot as you might think. (Click to Tweet)

What does that character have to offer? How to tell if it's time to give that character the ax (Click to Tweet)


  1. This is so true! We can get so carried away with our writing we end up with more players in the game than we need.

    I remember one fantasy story I wrote where this one character sort of took over the story. He wasn't that important to the plot and I gave him way more page time than was necessary. It ended up making the story wayyyyy too long.

    I scrutinize my characters a lot more closely now...I basically interview them for a position in my story ;)

    1. I mean, my first drafts are all messes: characters I don't need, messy plot points, etc. All of it running rampant XD I really do find it hard, sometimes, to look at things as critically as wondering if they should stay or go, but everything turns out better for it once you realize their role (if any).

      Interviews are a great idea! They help so much!