Dealing with too many characters in novels

At some point during the writing process you might feel that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew (cliché?); okay – eaten more than you can digest.

You review the situation and realize that one problem could be that there are too many paper-people: characters created by you. Your novel is set in a college and the entire cafeteria crowd feature in your novel. So what do you do?

What to do when you have created too many characters in your Novel

There is no one “right” way to tackle this. The way out of the paper-people maze is some serious introspection and planning.

You could begin with a simple test.

Ask yourself: Does my novel have too many Characters?

“Too many” is a subjective concept. So here are some red flags that could lead you to the conclusion that there are in fact too many of them. If you answer in the affirmative for any one of these, there are probably too many.

Red Flag 1: I think I am writing more than one book. If I split it up I could be writing two or three books.

Red Flag 2: These characters have absolutely no connection with my main characters. I’ve mentioned them once or twice and now I don’t know what to do.

Red Flag 3: There are these side-tracks that is taking me further away from my key dramatic events that will propel the plot forward

What do You do?

Okay, you have answered “yes” to one of those red flag questions. Don’t fret. Think about what you can do next. Here are some suggestions:

1. Character Inventory

Make a list of all the characters in your magnum opus in the order of their appearance. Count them. Do you have a 116 characters? Then, you might have a problem unless you are writing a epic fantasy fiction  of sorts or a trilogy or maybe just a large book (er…!).

Think about the genre you are writing in. J.R.R Tolkien created 923 characters in The Lord of The Rings series. As a personal fan of the series, I’d say every one of them added gravitas to the work. There are no rules here except that it could be very tedious for readers to keep going back to pages they have already read just to refresh their memory about who a particular is or what he does.

It is particularly annoying when a character turns up, says something that is going to affect the plot in a big way and then disappears. (Refer Point 5b) For instance, you have a forensic expert. He makes a profound discovery about a dead victim, he states it  in court and disappears. This might be fine. His job is done.

But, if you have a character who knows about the victim and you’ve written about them hanging out together but don’t provide any credible reason for disappearance this might be a loose end. Further still, that character may have been totally unnecessary.

2. Psyche Audit of your characters

Okay, now you have a list. Add a ‘function’ to each character. By function, I mean purpose.

Why is the character there?
What does s/he serve to do?
Are you providing information through this character?
Is s/he a positive character (working for the benefit of your main character) or is s/he a negative character (an obstacle creator)?

Then write beside each character whether the character is “good to have” or “need to have”

3. Map the Relationship of each character with your main characters

Your list might look like this:

  • Character A – Cook – sole confidante to main character – good to have
  • Character B – fait accompli – helps the character rob a bank – need to have

Once you’ve done that, look at your red flag situation. Are these side-tracks just moving you away from the main plot, conflict and conflict resolution?

4. Take A decision

It’s now time to make a decision. First to go would be those from the “good-to-have” list.

  • Do you have to murder them?

Oh boy. Do you have to? I had to “kill” one of my (mostly) conscientious character’s parents soon after his birth because there was no way I could have a plausible situation working out for him had they been alive. The character leaves his village in the middle of the night and never to return. He makes it big in the new city. Had his parents been alive, I’d have to steer the narratorial reins towards feelings of guilt or at least address the issue of abandonment because he is (mostly) conscientious. I don’t want a reader to think, “What happened to his parents?”

  • Give the character closure

Coming back to the example of the forensic expert, it’s good to let the character fade away when his work is done. It is important to give the character closure. And, by that I mean a credible and plausible end. A goodbye scene might be a nice way of doing it.

  • Edit them out entirely

Face it, there will be multiple edits before your book is “ready.” If there is a character that constantly sets the red flag alerts going, you might have to edit them out entirely and rewrite those scenes without a mention of those characters.

You might think that the exercise is not easy always. True. But, it is never futile and it is almost always a necessary to look at your own work critically.

If there is another red flag that you encountered or can think of or another way to “make a decision,” please do share it with us. We’d be happy to know with how you tackled that personnel problem. 

About Lavanya

Lavanya Shanbhogue-Arvind | MBA | Winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Special Prize (2011) | MFA in Creative Writing programme (City University of Hong Kong) | Her literary fiction novel will be published soon by Roli Books.

One thought on “Dealing with too many characters in novels”

  1. Rohit Gupta

    It is often a very hard decision to edit out an entire character, but it is a sheer necessity if nothing else. As I try to make an outline of my first novel, the two main problem areas seem to be the development of characters and the art of fine dialogues.
    Nice article!

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