Does Your Story Have Too Many Characters? (4 Steps to Fix Character Overload!)

The Karma Club
Better You Than Me
The Geography of Lost Things
I Speak Boy
Suns Will Rise
Amelia Gray is Almost Okay

I could go on and on but I’ll save you the time and just tell you what all of these books have in common. Apart from the fact that they were all written by me.

They all suffered from an affliction I’m henceforth calling, “Side Character Overload.” In other words, they all had at least one side character who just didn’t make it to the final draft and was cut along the way.

Did I recognize their superfluousness (vocab word alert!) the moment I wrote them in the story?  That’s not how first drafts work. (At least not for me.) At the time of writing these characters, they were important. They were funny. They were memorable.

And yet, they all ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor.

For most of these stories, I didn’t realize that they suffered from Side Character Overload until much later in the revision process. And for many of them, it was my editor who pointed it out and not me. But once I was done stomping my feet and digging in my heels and typing up my very long list of reasons why this character must absolutely not be cut, I took a deep breath, took a closer look at the story, and saw that the editor was right. That character just wasn’t necessary. In fact, they were so unnecessary that they were kind of dragging down the story.

That’s why for today’s tip, I thought I’d share my handy four-step process for putting your side characters to the test and determining if they really are necessary, or if they’re just dead weight, unwittingly dragging your story down.

Step 1: List out all the side characters in your novel

These are characters who appear more than once and who are not your main character(s) (aka “hero”). Yes, this includes love interests, enemies, mentors, friends, parents, co-workers, and the local dragon tamer who’s had a lifelong rivalry with your hero and recently sold them a vial of bogus dragon taming serum. (The nerve!)

Step 2: For each side character, write a short description of their function to the hero’s story

In other words, what role do they play in the hero’s life? e.g. helping the hero grow, serving as a source of conflict for the hero, pushing the hero’s buttons, giving the hero important information that they need along their quest, etc.

And yes, this answer must be given in relation to your hero(s). After all, it’s their story. You chose them to be at the center of it. So make sure they truly are at the center of it. Sure, side characters can have wants, needs, problems, and even arcs of their own, but ultimately, they somehow have to revolve around the hero.

Step 3: Identity any characters who you don’t serve a role in your hero’s story

Right away, you can cross these characters out and write them out of your next draft. That sounds harsh but if you can’t identify why they’re in this story, your reader won’t be able to either and they will slow the plot. Maybe save them for another story. Or brainstorm ways to reinvent them so that they do serve an important function to this hero and this story and then weave them more organically into it.

Step 4: Look for side characters whose functions overlap

Do you have two best friends who both teach the hero a lesson in teamwork? Do you have two villains who both force the hero to face the same fear? Do you have two dragon tamers who both sell the hero a vial of bogus dragon taming serum?

Wherever you find this crossover, it’s time to start cutting or combining. If they serve the same or very similar functions, then why do you need both? Chances are the redundant character is just dead weight in the story and every time they appear in a scene, the reader will inherently feel their lack of necessity.

Not only will eliminating unnecessary characters in your story make your overall story feel much tighter and cleaner, it will allow the side characters who are left to really stand out and shine. Too many side characters can often muddle a plot, not to mention they’re hard for the reader to keep track of.

Also, completing this four-step exercise will help you analyze your story in a new way, by looking at each of your side characters in relation to your hero. This will give you a new and helpful perspective on the story you’re telling and what you’re hoping to accomplish with it.

 

If the idea of cutting characters from your story is making you break into a cold sweat, let me leave you with this: Of all the side characters I cut from all the novels that I listed above, I can honestly say, I don’t miss any of them. For some, I can barely remember their names. And in many cases, when I chose to combine characters to eliminate redundancy, I ended up with some of my all-time favorite characters (who feel so much more complete and fleshed out than they did before).

So, just like with any revision, you never know what might come out of it until you try. You never know what wonders you might unlock, by facing your fears and trying something scary.

 

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