May 23, 2014

How to Fire Your Novel's Cast

Hey guys! Believe it or not, I’m still alive. It’s been quite the busy couple semesters at college (hence the distinct lack of articles). BUT! Summer is back, and so is my writing frenzy! I’ll be posting a little over the next couple of months, so hopefully you’ll find something here to help you out. :) 

Today’s topic requires us to be a little utilitarian. Ahem-hem, warning. This may sting. 

As a fairly new writer myself, it has taken me a long time to truly accept the fact that sometimes, you really can’t have it all. The problem with mastering (read: occasionally managing) the technique of creating real, lovable characters is that once conceived, they are nearly impossible to abandon. All too often, writers stumble into the trap of trying to write too much about too many characters.

This makes sense. If you love writing, your characters are going to be as real (…more real…) to you than true life. What is more natural than longing to share this with your readers? In fact, even readers sometimes wish they could know everything about every character. Fandoms, anyone?

But the truth is that this simply isn’t feasible, even for those writing series—not every character is going to get forty pages of screen time at some point in your collection. Why? Because we are story tellers, not historians. Our priority is to tell a story—that we love, yes—but that captures a finite picture over a finite period of time.

“Won’t a good writer be able to get away with anything he wants?” Um—no. Even the best authors are human. They, like all of the rest of us, have to remember that like government and elastic waistbands, if stories are stretched too far, they loses all meaning. A little salt seasons a lot of food, and too much ruins it.

Point is, you have to pick and choose which characters deserve a place in your novel. If you’re having a hard time understand what exactly I mean, take a look at the three questions below that you can ask yourself to determine which of your babies gets the chopping block.

1) Do I actually care about this character?

You’d be surprised at how often people write stories with characters they absolutely detest. I was nearly guilty of this myself while writing my second book. I got nearly ten chapters in before I realized why I was having such a hard time motivating myself to write. Quite simply, I had made a side character into a lead one, and I hated him. Once I realized this, the solution was clear. I didn’t eliminate him completely (as in, erase his entire existence), because I did need him and I knew I liked him doing the job I needed him for. But I was able to chop him from my cast of lead characters, which meant I had a lot more room to develop the ones I did care about.

2) Could I use a different character with just a few changes to the story?

I’ve used this question quite a lot. The reason it took me so long to eliminate the character mentioned above was that I needed him to provide a foil for the emotional development of my main character. When I finally asked myself, “Can I use someone else without fundamentally changing my story?” And the answer was yes! I realized I had another very important character who could fulfill this role too, and with my consolidation justified, one character got a raise and the other was fired.

Key point here is that if you realize it’s not necessary for this character to fill a role, see if you can give his job to one you are certain you have to keep.

3) Do this character exist because I like him or because I need him?

Sound similar to the above questions? Yeah, that’s cuz it is. But now I’m making you face the facts head on. No more evading the question. For real, do you really, truly, desperately need this character? If the answer to this question is “no”—however weak, grudging or tearful!—then KILL YOUR BABY! If you like them that much, write them their own book!

If reading all this has you on your knees, clutching one of your brainchildren to your dripping face, afraid to take the final step and fling them out the window, I can do the honors. Remember!


            Some characters are more important to your story than others. If you waste time on extras, you’re stealing word count from the ones that really matter. Give yourself the luxury of being able to give them all the page count they need to grow and change.


            The fewer characters you have, the more efficient you’re forced to be with them. Each one has to do a lot more, but that only makes them so much more fun to read about. Lacking breadth of cast, you are required to aim for depth, and that is always a rewarding experience for readers.

As cool as it would be to have Benedict Cumberbatch appear as Sherlock Holmes in every other movie in existence, it would ruin a lot of films that have a lot to offer on their own. Likewise, your awesome character might be ruining the awesome book you’re working on now. Be brave, be objective, and be creative in reducing your cast so you can do justice to the characters you need.

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