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My Struggle With Characters

One of the most difficult parts of writing I encountered early on was character construction. I exhausted myself worrying about how I needed a large, rich cast of people and animals to better fill my fictional world; and it almost drove me to quit. I’m glad I didn’t, because now I look back and know I don’t have to worry, and you shouldn’t either. How you tell your narrative is up to your own discretion and planning. But please don’t string twenty adverbs together and claim it’s just your “style.” Learn the craft and correct boundaries. There are plenty of rules broken by expert writers, but you can’t break a rule without first understanding it. So starting us off, we need to understand this powerful truth: We aren’t George Martin.

I could’ve picked any other name, but I’ll use him as an example, and until 2015 I’d never heard of Martin or his famous A Song of Ice and Fire novels. (Maybe in high school I considered A Game Of Thrones for a book report, but the memory is too hazy to confirm.) Anyway, there are few who can deny his books beautifully use a multitude of varied and colorful personalities. Even if there are things to learn from analyzing his works, I am not him. YOU are not him. We will have our own unique styles.

Too many characters can be a bad thing.

“Who was James again? Oh that’s right! He’s that guy we haven’t seen for ten chapters!” You see where I’m going with this? Me neither. Overstuffing a story can be just as unhealthy as overstuffing my face with a good deal of tasty nacho cheese flavored chips, but for different reasons. Too many faces and voices can dilute a plot and add confusion. So as a rule of thumb, retain the least needed number of characters. Don’t employ five characters in a scene when the plot can progress with less.

Despite how much I find his work appalling, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter is an excellent example of a limited cast. The entire story progresses with only seven key people. But read it at your own risk as the writer’s language is very wordy and dated. I don’t feel I need to explain this point any further. Too many can confuse the reader if the writer’s skills can’t keep up.

Cut unnecessary characters.

When I started to world build, I dreaded the process of character elimination. I had a huge cast I wanted to use throughout the plot, but after a few chapters I’d already pressed over twenty into the narrative. The journey became more of a boring wiki page of details that didn’t adhere to one another. I had to stop and remove content. But then a few cuts turned into chunks of plot missing and a universe shrunk to a solar system, an empire turned into a city, and no one was fighting for anything that made sense anymore. So I scraped the project restarted with maybe ten key figures. Then issue number two came out to play: now I needed a new plot. After months of new plans, I was ready to start again, this time adding new characters to develop the plot.
First, I asked if I even needed the new character. I considered every option with my existing ones  trying to save hours of work with the fewest possible changes.

Here are some questions to ask: Who’s flexible? Who can do this with some changes? Could the plot improve more from further developing an existing character? Can the current supporting cast have the skills from a mysterious past? The story may need a mechanic to repair the protagonist’s vehicle. Not only can modifying a character add more value them, but it has potential for richer development.
In my case, the existing cast wouldn't work. At this point its good to ask a few questions about the new member. Contemplate if any existing characters should know them. The plot may move smoother with a new friendly face, but it may be better to add a subplot to introduce them. Next, ask how they will move the plot forward. This must be asked. No impact to the story means they are a useless addition. The answer to this question can have some flexibility if the story is a series. They may be almost pointless in the first book, but prove to be important in the second. However, within the confines of a single book the new character should further the plot almost immediately.

Another thing to note is the cast's relevance to the plot. They need to stay relevant and continue to add to the story. If they don't then consider going back to making an existing character fill this new one’s purpose. Don’t misunderstand me here, some characters should disappear when their job is done, but their absence should impact the story somehow. People miss their friends, they left the door open for a new threat, etc...

Are we willing to kill them?

This is an interesting question, and I surprised myself when faced with it. This isn't a case of “killing your darlings” to solidify the story, but a way to measure future attachment to this character. I cut out two key protagonists before because I didn’t personally care whether they lived or died. And as the writer of the story, if I didn’t care then neither would the audience. Conflict is everything, and trials become more real when faced with dangers against characters we genuinely like.
I think I'm going to stop right here. I originally wanted to say more on the character process, but this is already one large article. Mayhaps if I stop here, I may ACTUALLY RELEASE CONTENT. In a future article I hope to continue the process of building new characters.

— Brandon T. Blaylock

"Too many characters" (I'll just let myself out again...)


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