Who Are (All of) You?

One of the most common character development problems I come across in developmental editing is the introduction of the cast of thousands. We’ve barely met Harry and Sally when we are also introduced to Bernadette, Jose, Terry, Maximilian, Duane, Lisa, and their children and pets. The reader can barely figure out who any of these characters are, let alone develop any kind of interest in or empathy with them.

Unnecessary Characters Create Character Development Problems

When there are too many characters jostling for page time, it is difficult for the author to develop any of them in a way that will engage a reader’s interest. It is true that certain stories require a lot of characters, but when and how they are introduced matters. As with any type of exposition, character introductions can turn into info-dumping:

“And that’s Miranda, married to Michael—the blond—and their children Margaret and Mitchell, not to be confused with Michel, over there, who is seeing Angelique, whose ex, Antonio, is standing by the bean dip.”

I can’t keep track of any of these people and further I don’t care about a single one.

Authors sometimes try to fix this problem by turning all of the characters into viewpoint characters, thinking that this will allow us to engage with them more fully:

“Miranda overheard Penelope pointing her out to the new neighbor. She went over and introduced herself. When Michael saw Miranda abandon the shrimp cocktail, he knew something was up and went to follow her. Margaret, their daughter, watched her parents leave the buffet table and decided now was the time to snag all the crab cakes.”

But while this is a slight improvement over an undifferentiated list, the approach still creates only superficial engagement with the characters.

How to Reduce the Cast List

Some suggestions I often make for authors who have overcrowded their pages:

  • As with any exposition, characters should only be introduced when they are needed for the story to make sense.
  • Only the most important characters to the story should be viewpoint characters
  • Character roles can often be combined to reduce the number of characters readers have to remember, especially minor characters who only show up occasionally. For example, in the above scenario, maybe only one child really matters to the story, so Margaret and Mitchell can be rolled into one character.
  • Minor characters should be defined by their role, not given names (as the giving of names implies that the character is important and needs to be remembered). So unless the barista is a close confidante of the protagonist, she can just be “the barista.”

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