Let’s recap what we've learned about characters so far this week:
Tuesday – Characters come in all shapes and sizes. They can be people, pets, forces of nature or even inanimate objects. They can also be main, secondary or tertiary; protagonist or antagonist, hero, villain or some strange mixture of the two; sympathetic or unsympathetic; and flat or round.
Thursday – It’s easiest to keep track of all your novel characters by creating character profiles. It's either that or suffer some really annoying consequences.
Between those two, we’ve introduced the what and how of the subject. Now we’re going to delve into the why.
Not the why of our characters in general. I think we’ve established that well enough by now. Instead, we need to discuss the why of each individual personality that we allow into our novel.
There’s a thousand ways to strengthen the story you’re trying to tell. And I can’t tell you the advice below is the most important of them all. That wouldn’t be accurate. However, it is a very good step to take in establishing a strong story.
To look like a pro, you might need to kill off a character or two. As in cut them from your novel altogether.
Like they never ever existed.
Here’s the bottom-line question you have to ask in this regard: Why is my character there?
If you can’t answer that easily, then perhaps you should cut him, her or it out.
In real life, there are dozens, hundreds or even thousands of tertiary characters or “pointless” secondary characters we run up against every week. These would be the people we share subway space with, maybe interact with at work, or smile at while we walk the dog in our neighborhood.
They exist within our worlds to some degree or another, but they don’t push them along in any recognizable way.
That’s how real life works. But it’s also where real life and novel-writing diverge.
Every character should serve a specific purpose.
Every character you mention in your story needs to serve some set purpose. When it comes to main characters and even secondary characters, that purpose is usually to drive the entire plot. But it doesn’t have to be that drastic.
Characters can also help a subplot along, or establish something new or important. That’s fine. Just don’t waste your time or your readers’ on “filler” characters that simply take up space.
Sometimes, I hate to tell you, that means cutting out (or seriously revising) figures in your story you really thought were necessary.
It might be easier to illustrate this point than to explain it outright. So here goes…
Main character Priyanka, who is pursuing her dream to be a five-star chef, has a best friend named Jordie. And Jordie is a total valley girl.
An absolute fashionista, she delivers lines like, “Oh my word, girl, are you really going to wear that?” and “Let’s take a selfie!”
As the best friend, she’s in at least every other chapter. So she’s clearly a prominent secondary character here. Yet if she disappeared altogether, the plot wouldn’t change in any significant way.
That’s because the story as a whole or any necessary part of it (i.e., subplot) isn’t about fashion or selfies. It’s not about overcoming a shallow lifestyle or anything connected with Jordie at all. It’s about Priyanka becoming the chef she always wanted to be.
So unless Jordie ends up serving as some enormous catalyst (and even then, she might be replaceable), your novel simply doesn’t need her.
If you’ve gotten attached to Jordie, I’m sorry. Seriously. As a novel writer myself, I know how easy it is to get attached to every part of a story manuscript, including the parts that don't work so well.
But ultimately, your story should be a strong one. Even if that means a character or two has to die.