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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

When to delete a character

As promised, today I'm going to talk about the gut wrenching decision to delete a character. This can often feel much more traumatic than cutting a favorite scene. It usually involves cutting more than one scene, and  rearranging smaller or perhaps even bigger parts of other scenes. Also we grow fond of our characters, they become like real people and cutting them can often feel like issuing a death sentence. In short, it's not a decision to be taken lightly. Except when it is.

What do I mean by this? Well consider, if cutting a character has very little impact on the overall story, then it should be a pretty easy decision to make. Having fewer characters means giving your reader fewer things to remember, fewer people to follow, and fewer subplots to keep straight in their head. Have you ever read one of those books that has upwards of 10-15 characters and at some point you have to stop and ask yourself, okay, who was this guy? What did he do? Why was he important? If he really is important then these are valid questions, but if he's not, then you're just playing with your reader and losing their trust that you're going to tell them a great story.

So here are some questions to ask yourself when contemplating the decision to cut a character:
  • First and most importantly, does the story change at all if this character weren't present?
  • Could another character in the story take that character's scenes without it affecting the story?
  • What is the purpose of having this character in the story? Is he/she vital to the plot? To development of the MC?
  • Can cutting this character give you room to develop another character in more depth? 
  • Is the character memorable? If not, that's a sure sign that the character is unneeded or his/her character is so undeveloped that your reader won't notice if they're gone.
  • If word count is an issue, cutting a character or combining two characters into one is a good way to cut some words.

I'll give you two examples of times when I've discovered that a character was easy to delete.

Example 1 - in this instance I was able to take two minor characters and combine them into one memorable character. Character 1 (Greg) was in a scene where my main character, Nikki, arrives at school in a fancy sports car. In the scene, Greg and his buddies make some crude inferences as to how she got to drive the car in the first place. Much later in the story - late enough that the reader probably won't remember him, Greg is the butt of a joke. These are fun scenes, but fairly extinguishable as is. They are not critical to the story. Character 2 shows up a few chapters later when Nikki tells a story about what happened between a guy named Brent and her sister. This story is crucial to the reader understanding why Nikki feels so guilty about her sister's death, but Brent is there by word of mouth only as he is never actually seen in the story. After a few re-reads, it became clear to me that there was no reason why Greg and Brent couldn't be the same person. Furthermore, by making them the same person, he became more memorable and gave me a clear reason as to why he'd be the target of a prank (Nikki gets revenge for her sister and a bit of closure). Finally, I was able to incorporate Nikki's story about Greg/Brent into something she does to trick the villain of the story, Maxine. In the end, everything became more streamlined.

Example 2 - This example comes more recently and I'm still in the process of re-working these scenes. The character in question, Curtis, was in my first draft and for some reason kept sticking around as the short, sweet guy who has a crush on Nikki and inadvertently ends up as her first date for the prom. Nikki shuns Curtis for most of the story and later ends up ditching him to go with her ex - which in retrospect didn't shine a very good light on her. Other than being an impetus to make her ex jealous, Curtis had no role in the story. I liked him. He was sweet and kind of funny, but he was not important to the central plot and did little for developing Nikki's character. When I proposed cutting him to my writing bud, Mel, she said that she actually had to stop and think about who he was (Mel has read a couple drafts of the story so for her not to remember Curtis is really saying something). My only problem - that little jealousy thing I mentioned. I wanted that in there. Also there comes a scene later where I wanted Nikki to have an excuse to be trying on prom dresses. In retrospect these were rather silly reasons for keeping Curtis around and were easily solved. Instead of Curtis asking Nikki out, she decides to go stag with her best friend, Kay. I've been wanting to develop Kay's character more anyway and cutting the scenes with Curtis (there are about 3) gives me room to do so.

After writing this last night, I actually thought of two other characters that I can combine into one. Like they say, practice what you preach!! I hope this post has given you some food for thought.  Tomorrow Janice Hardy will have the stage. You won't want to miss it!!


Melanie said...

Oh my Gosh, Angie, it never even occurred to me to look at how a cut character can be combined. That is so, so interesting and well...kinda brilliant. This is a great, great post. Thank you so much for thinking this through and sharing! I hope I get to see the next draft because I can't believe how much has changed! Don't be holdin' back on me girl :-)

Can't wait for Janice's post tomorrow!

Nomes said...

this is a great post :) I've done this before too and found it made my work much more fresh - with combining a character, it also helped with the blending of two personalities I ended up with a more distinct vibe with a side character.

on a completely unhelpful note, I loved Curtis. He very much reminded me of one of the characters from Undone (Josh) who also had a crush on the MC. but i get how it tightens things up - and there's still enough jealousy there from Sam :)

also, you explained all of this really succinctly.

oh, and BTW, LOVING Harmonic Feedback. We have guests staying here - so I cant read it non-stop :( it's very compelling and totally my kind of read.


Angie said...

Mel - you're too kind.

Nomes - See, I had to stop and think for a minute who Josh was - he was the computer geek, right? I'm not so good with names, but I remember the two love interests perfectly. Maybe I'll find a place for Curtis in book II, but I think I'd have to give him a bigger role.

Glad you're loving Harmonic Feedback. Have fun with your guests. :)



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