After Jim’s post on subplots yesterday, I started thinking about some other issues that face new authors. One issue I still grapple with is what I call the ‘cast of thousands’ problem – the decisions that have to be made regarding the number of major and minor characters that populate a novel’s landscape. When considering this I often ask myself, at what point does a book get bogged down with too many characters?
One mistake new authors often make is to introduce too many characters, leaving a reader confused and (in many instances) bogged down in subplots created to sustain the ‘cast’ the author has created. In the final edits to my first manuscript, Consequences of Sin, I discarded at least two extraneous characters and (I think) the story was the stronger for it. Still it can be difficult to decide when the ‘cast’ has become bloated… So here are a few of the considerations I try to take into account when it comes to characters.
- Identify the principal protagonists whose storyline provides the core of the overall story arc. I find that a weak story often has at the heart a weak main protagonist whose objectives are unclear. In my view it is critical to establish up front who the key characters really are and to constantly evaluate their role in the story. Sometimes a character I thought would be significant turns out to play only a peripheral role and I have to be strong-willed enough to let them go…which leads to the next point…
- Be willing to cull characters (no matter how attached to them you have become). Just because you have grown fond of a character is no reason to keep him/her. Perhaps they need to be ‘x’ed from this story and set aside for use in a later book. An author cannot just hold on to their characters for the sake of it. For me a good way to double check this issue is to outline all the characters and their goals/conflicting objectives/purpose and re-evaluate each of them to ensure I have the most effective and streamlined cast possible.
- Nix the cute characters that provide little more than background to the story. Minor characters can add richness and depth to a book but too many (especially with detailed back stories) can become little more than background ‘noise’.
- Be your character’s harshest critic. Constantly ask yourself – is this character necessary, believable and (importantly) fresh? If a character is little more than a stereotype or a cliche then, as an author, you have to question what they add to the story.
So what issues do you think are vital when it comes to the issue of deciding the number of major and minor characters you include? Is there a point that (for you) a ‘cast’ of characters becomes too bloated to be sustainable?