Combating Character Clutter—Whose Story Is It?

One of the problems with the early drafts of my novel was that I had too many characters. This is a common problem for many new writers. I became so absorbed in each new character I developed that the story quickly became a series of rabbit trails with no clear protagonist. In my workshop classes, peers had wildly different preferences on how I might develop the story and what characters to keep or toss. The reason was because I had failed to choose a direction for the story and to assert the character the reader was meant to vie for. Instead, all of my interesting people where pulling readers in too many directions and exhausting their attention. I needed to focus.

Part of the problem was that I will still in the early stages of the project. I didn’t know what the story was yet. I was just writing scenes with the same characters in them and letting my imagination run wild. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with this when a story is just emerging from its primordial ooze. That is important, especially for a large project. You don’t want to edit too early. In fact, it can be useful to check out all the people who show up for open auditions before committing to the select few who will carry the narrative forward. However, eventually, often pages and pages into the process, the auditioning must stop and cuts have to be made.

What followed was an exercise in “killing my darlings”. A kind professor softened the blow by telling me I was simply filing them away for a time when they could be used for their own story. Whichever view you take, in order to strengthen a narrative you must commit to your key characters.

To do this, look back over all the content you have written and seek out the most compelling strand. Ask yourself, whose story is this? Who has the most at stake? Who has the strongest voice or the most compelling personality? It may not be the character you expect, and that’s ok. You may need to reconsider the storyline so that this character becomes the center, rework the character you had hoped would take center stage, or admit that you have inadvertently been writing a different story and turn your efforts in that new direction.

Finding your central character can take some trial and error. Try writing an important scene from several different perspectives. What character tells it best? Consider why this might be the case.

When working with characters on the periphery, think about what each one contributes to the story. Can some characters be merged into one? Often merging multiple characters creates a single, more complex character and less people for the reader to remember. I have often merged two main characters who seem to be fighting for center stage. When I turn them into one person, the result can be very dynamic.

Continue to read through what you have written so far and cut out any scenes or people that distract from the story you want to tell. Put them in a folder and save them for later. They can always be resurrected if you find you have chopped them in undue haste. Take heart, the process may be painful, but the end result should be a stronger, more focused story.

Exercise: New writers may want to try writing a short story where they limit the characters they work with from the beginning (no more than 3). This can help you to focus on developing a strong plot. Sometimes too many characters are simply a mask to hide a lack of plot. If this is the case for you, this exercise can take away that distraction and help you really focus on developing your skills in plotting. 

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