Thursday, February 18, 2010

Condense Your Cast of Characters

Tomorrow I'll answer Stephanie's question from Monday's post, but I got another idea for today's post and I wanted to touch on that.

There are several bits of prominent writing advice floating around the internet -- "show, don't tell," "eliminate unneeded prepositional phrases," "AVOID ADVERBS," "condense your cast of characters" ...

Wait, what?

Your "cast" is the number of named characters in your book, i.e. Steve the bartender counts, but the third spearcarrier from the left does not. Your main character, your villain, and every other character important enough to be given a name should be counted in your cast.

Sometimes, we write characters as a need for a different person comes up. In CALLARION AT NIGHT, I name four of the soldiers in the Lord Premier's Gendarmes (points if you guess where I stole the organization from) -- one is the Premier's nephew, one appears three times, and two are only in one scene (the scene from Chapter Two that I've posted here).

Now, these four soldiers all serve different purposes in the narrative. However, and I might actually do this, the two soldiers that are named in only one scene could easily be replaced by any of the other soldier/villain-allied characters without much of a difference in the narrative. This is what I mean by condensing your characters. If there is a way to take Steve the bartender and Jackie the waitress and make them the same person in the text (named Stevckie -- not really), then you end up with a stronger side character. The purposes of the two characters haven't changed, mind you. What you've instead done is heightened Steve's (or Jackie's) purpose to make it more poignant.

This doesn't mean that having one-off characters is a bad thing, though. Sometimes you need them because of a location change/time change/whatever. In that case, by all means keep Steve the bartender and Jackie the waitress as two separate people in bars on different sides of the city. But if you can rewrite to shrink the cast by any stretch of the imagination, it has the real potential to simplify both your life as the writer and your story as a whole.

And how can that be a bad thing?

16 comments:

Rick Daley said...

Many side characters have back-stories. One thing I do in first drafts is write a lot of these back-stories into the narrative. In my revisions I cut the back-stories.

I need to air them out as part of the creative process, and for me as the writer it is important to know and understand where they come from and what motivates them. It takes judicious editing to realize what elements are crucial for the reader to enjoy / understand the story, and which parts are simply guideposts for me...kind of like braces that support the walls of a house before you put the roof on, but once the rafters are in place, the braces are no longer needed.

Matthew Delman said...

Rick --

If you're taking the time to write a backstory for each side character, then you're pretty much already condensing your cast into the smallest possible number.

J.K. Rowling once said she wrote out backstories for all 40 of Harry's yearmates.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I've only condensed two characters in Hatshepsut. There were other characters I thought were important, but then decided they weren't so they lost their names.

Amalia T. said...

I had to cut some characters, myself. The other characters held it against me for a couple of days, but then the wounds healed and they moved on with their lives...

L. T. Host said...

I think I'm pretty good about this. I only put people in the story that need to be there, for some reason. And I do mean NEED.

But I only *think* I'm pretty good about this. As usual, I am too close to it to know for sure.

Susan Quinn said...

My character cast tends to start out really small. Then I'm like "Wait, doesn't this character have parents??". Not sure if that's good or bad, but a rich backstory does make the characters that make it to the page have a lot more going for them.

L. T. Host said...

Also: you need to go here!!!

http://steampunkworldsfair.com/

Wendy Sparrow said...

Great post. Sometimes I really want to name random people that my characters run into... and it's so hard to resist. On the other hand, I hate name dumps in some books that leave you flipping back pages. Must find happy medium.

Iapetus999 said...

Agree with what's said...but there is something that bothers me about the subject and it's that sometimes fiction can be really sparse with characters so that their world is strangely empty. Like when they storm the castle, there's like a guard or two then they're in the Inner Sanctum. Heck, most Secret Lairs probably employ a couple dozen cooks alone.

Yes, a lot of these characters are really more background setting, and in screenplays you can't just cast a thousand people to run the castle, but still...evil empires are really hard to run and it takes tons of people to get the job done.

Adam Heine said...

That was one thing that bugged me about the Left Behind series. There were like 100 characters and they were all the same. When you have to have a Cast of Characters section just to help the reader keep everyone straight, you know you're doing it wrong.

Anita Saxena said...

Your post reminds me of the movie The Proposal. In it, there is a "Stevckie" type character played by the Hispanic actor in the Office sitcom on NBC. This character plays everything from store clerk, waiter, exotic dancer, and the minister. It was pretty funny.

Susan Quinn said...

Iapetus - I HATE it when I have to run the evil empire on a skeleton crew! Sourcing just doesn't appreciate what it takes to get the job done! :)

Seriously, I've heard of "furniture" characters before, but I think we need one level beneath that. "Wall decor" characters, perhaps? And how to best describe them? The same as you normally describe the environment?

...and then a swath of humanity, dressed in the tattered peasant clothes of the day, surged through the marketplace and created a human river Queen Amelia had to swim through . . .

Iapetus999 said...

@Susan One small correction
...through the marketplace and created a river of Tom's, Sue's, and Betsy's that Queen Amelia had to swim through.
You want to name that swath to give it proper importance. ;)

BTW I have a Sky Goddess named Amelia in one of my WIP's.

Susan Quinn said...

@Iapetus
...through the marketplace and created a river of Samson's, Moriah's, and Hetup's that Sky Goddess Amelia looked upon with disdain.

I'm beginning to see the potential here. Give flavor with names. Nice.

Matthew Delman said...

Susan --

I think it was the "tattered peasant clothes of the day" bit that got me.

Re Running the evil empire on a skeleton crew: it's just so hard to find good help these days!

Iapetus --

Good points, sir. This is why I always try to at least mention there are other people around even if I don't name them. I.e. random longshoremen at the dockside, merchants in the marketplace, that kind of thing.

Susan R. Mills said...

Just combined two characters this week during my revisions. It means I've got to go back and fix every chapter before now, but I think it will be worth it in the end.