Right now I have two novels that I am writing. The first one, titled Bleed Well, is in the re-write/revise phase right now. The other one is in the draft stage and it is as of yet untitled. The new draft does not get a lot of attention as I find I’m really liking the revision process.
But anyways, Bleed Well has taught me a lot about revision; and the main thing I want to discuss with this post again deals with characters: specifically merging minor characters together.
Now I don’t know how many of you have read War and Peace, but for those of you who have (and even those who’ve just heard some horror stories) you know what I’m talking about when I say that too many characters can bog down a story to a crawl.
God bless you Leo Tolstoy, but in War and Peace you introduce SEVEN characters on the first page! This kind of character machine-gunning riddles the reader full of holes; and instead of flying through your book because it’s so beautifully written, they limp through, thinking of nothing but the difficulty of trying to figure out who is who; which characters matter; and why does it seem like this character has three names. Now Tolstoy could get away with this in the age that he wrote in, but not today.
So what do you do if you find yourself faced with your own War and Peace? Well if you’re written the next War and Pace by all means get it published! But for those of you who just have a novel with a cast of characters the size of the New York phone book, my answer would be to merge some of your minor characters together and eliminate many more.
What do I mean by this?
Each character has a specific purpose for being in the book. One character might be there for comedy relief, another to save the princess, and yet another to solve the riddle. Why not merge some of these responsibilities? Make the character that saves the princess funny. He can journey to the castle where she’s being kept, trying to solve the riddle. Then when he reaches her tells a funny joke and tells her of the riddle. Then have the princess solve the riddle. You’ve just taken four characters and condensed them into two.
I know I know that’s a pretty basic example, but look at your work carefully and scrutinize each character. Pretend you’re holding a delete key up to their head demanding that you tell them why they deserve to live; make them justify their existence. You’d be surprised just how many characters you can eliminate without losing anything.
Now an example pulled straight from my work would be this: I have a main character named Fredrick, who talks with his mother, gets some ‘motherly’ advice and moves on. Then another character, Susan, gives Fredrick some grief then dies. Does that already seem like too many characters? Yea I thought so too.
So here’s what I did. I did away with the main character’s mother. (Yes, you can do that. Nepotism is bad in both life and novels.) I then made Susan Fredrick’s aunt, who raised him after his mother died. So she’s kinda like a disliked but loved step-mother. Well Fredrick gets his ‘motherly’ advice from his aunt, who also gives Fredrick some grief. Susan dies and we move on with the story. (The mother did not do much of anything later on so she was just written out).
Another thing that I think every writer should be on the lookout for are naming insignificant characters. I won’t go into too much detail here, but no reader wants to read or cares about the six men sitting at the poker table in the back of the room. If they don’t directly contribute significant action to the story DON’T NAME THEM! But that does not mean name everybody who does something to affect the plot.
Even if one of those men at the poker table needs to break a beer bottle over your character’s head to move the plot forward, then are forgotten, just describe them as, “The man with the brown shirt who was playing poker in the back.” Yes it’s more words than just saying “Dave who was playing poker in the back.” but the word ‘Dave’ slows the reader down more than “The man with the brown shirt.” because the reader now has to create room in their mind for Dave, thinking they are an important character.
Now I don’t recommend that you keep referring to him as that in his scene. You can shorten it down to “the man” or something like that, but resist the temptation to name him. Yes it’s likely one of his buddies would say “Hey Dave, whatcha doin?” BUT DON’T DO IT HERE. Named characters need to be involved deeply in the story. They need to be 3D. Do you have time to develop Dave? Do you really have enough spare words to make him really come to life? I didn’t think so.
So as I’ve learned, by chopping down insignificant named characters and merging other characters together; you can really tighten up your writing and make your writing seem smoother and effortless.
As a side note, a blog that I read, Anne Mini’s Author! Author!, did a three part episode on names recently. I guess great minds think alike as I’ve had this in draft for the last couple days. But I just wanted to mention this so nobody thinks I’m stealing info (although I did read the articles and was probably influenced by them a little in my revisions.)