lesson in eliminating unnecessary characters

A Lesson in Eliminating Unnecessary Characters From Your Story

This week’s video offers some tips and examples from the movie Seabiscuit on how to identify and eliminate unnecessary characters from your book.

Video Transcript:

Lately,  I’ve been talking quite a bit about figuring out how many and what kind of characters should be in your story. Most of these discussions have been based on the concrete structural ideas of character archetypes and roles within stories, which are very important and useful to consider. But today I want to scale back a little from the theoretical side of the question to the more practical.

You’ll often hear me and other writing instructors say that all “unnecessary characters” should be eliminated from your story. But that, of course, begs the question: How do you know which characters are unnecessary? Although keeping character archetypes and roles in mind will definitely help guide you, this question will eventually come down to the author making an executive decision, based on his story’s needs. Some stories are going to need three characters, some stories are going to need twenty, some are going to need ninety-seven. So how do you know when you’ve added an unnecessary character?

The moment you’ve added a character who doesn’t advance the plot is that moment.

A great example of a tight, focused cast of characters can be found in the movie adaptation of Seabiscuit. The book, of course, is narrative non-fiction, which gives it the leeway to include characters who are not necessary to the story. But the movie did a beautiful job of weeding out even seemingly integral characters who, as it turns out, do not advance the plot. For example, people who read the book after first watching the movie may have been surprised to learn that Charles Howard, the horse’s owner, had several more children than just the son whose death is a crucial plot point in the adaptation.

Would including those extraneous children have created a realistic view of the character’s family life? Sure. But were they necessary to the story? No. And the movie was absolutely better off for having recognized that and eliminated them from the script.

Tell me your opinion: Have you ever had to delete a character? What made you realize the character was extraneous?

a lesson in eliminating characters

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Thanks again, Katie.
    I’m going off on a tangent, I’m afraid. I know neither the book Seabiscuit nor the movie. You contrast ‘a realistic view of the character’s family life’ with the ‘story’. But in my novel I want to create a realistic view of my MC’s life and not everything ‘advances the plot’, because it’s not really about a plot but a life. And life isn’t only about conflicts, setbacks and tensions…

    • Everything’s about balance. For example, if you’ll watch Seabiscuit, you’ll also see that the jockey has a large family, which was necessary to explain his backstory. But because none of his siblings were crucial to the plot, none of them were given enough screen time to detract from the forward momentum.

  2. I recently had to get rid of an extraneous character. Originally she was going to be the person who taught one MC what she needs to know, and the love interest for the other MC. Then I realized…the role of teaching the MC could well be taken by a different character who was already crucial to the plot, and that the MCs could be (with a little tweaking of ages) each other’s (potential) love interest, a concept that I hadn’t considered before but now really like because of the way they help to develop each other. They make for a certainly interesting couple. Because the MCs were so integral to each other’s reaching the climax point of the story, I figured, maybe they deserve a shot at that. It makes more sense that way.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Great example of how eliminating an unnecessary character can bring greater cohesion and potential to the whole story.

  3. Another example of a movie that did this well is ‘The Great Escape’, in my opinion. I read the book it was based on, and I think the movie makers did an excellent job compiling the great variety of people and anecdotes into a neat, forceful cast of characters. I’ve studied it when working on making my own casts.

  4. Something to have in mind. I will definitely be thinking about this and what can each character provide…
    Thanks!

    M.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s a good question to ask beta readers too, since they’re always going to be more objective than we are.

  5. I’m glad my characters are limited in the story I’m working on, so I don’t have to worry too much about who stays and who goes.

  6. Charles Ranier says

    Usually I don’t have a useless enough character to get rid of wholesale, I more often end up combining two or three characters into one. Not only does this help from the story pov, but it helps with the internal logistics because if three people are involved you have to deal with how much each one knows about what’s going on and did he get told yet or not, etc, and keep it all straight in your own head while making sure you’re not confusing the reader with it as well.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is always a great approach, since not only does it eliminate weak characters, but it brings added complexity to those who remain.

  7. Although it isn’t directly related to what your very useful post takes up, the question you raise makes me think of a problem I had to deal with. It involved not whether to get rid of a character, but the degree to which the character figured in the story. I just couldn’t see what was causing my novel to feel congested and labored. And then it hit me: you have one too many point-of-view characters in this story. Once I saw this, kept the character but took away his point of view, it was like (forgive the analogy) clearing a drain.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yep, when in doubt opt for fewer rather than more POV characters. It’s amazing how it can shine up a novel. Brent Weeks is one of my favorite fantasy authors. His debut series Night Angel is absolutely fantastic, but it was interesting for me to read his follow-up Black Prism, which featured a much more concise cast of POV characters, and see how that alone tightened up his already excellent writing even more.

  8. “Do they advance the plot?” That’s a great, short question to ask myself as I go through this round of revisions. Thank you!

  9. Leonard Kennard says

    Thanks for that Katie. I have used a group of people as one character in a book presently nearing completion. Hence none are named individually.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is a great approach in certain situations. As I mentioned in a comment above, Seabiscuit features the collectively but not individually important family of jockey Red Pollard. None of the siblings are named or have significant screen time; they’re just “Red’s family.”

  10. I can’t recall ever having to cut a character. On the contrary, I generally run tight. I have my POV character(s), my major supporting characters, my minor supporting characters, and my incidental/clue-giving characters. In my genre, I have a lot of incidental characters–witnesses, acquaintances of victims, other non-important officers, etc. I’m actually more likely to realize I need a broader cast (for a suspect pool) than anything. On my first drafts, I generally write things straight, and have to go back and add in red herrings–including those behind the red herrings.

  11. Large casts of characters definitely tends to be more problematic in movies in my opinion. I think they work the best in novels/tv shows if they’re interesting and have a role in the story of course. I’m not as big on anime as my brothers are and I usually don’t get interested enough to finish a whole series, but for over a month I’ve still been totally blown away with the ending of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood and the show in general. I’m even halfway through the manga series that it’s based off ( and it’s really rare for me to read comics/manga). I’d recommend it for anyone that likes a good show with a large and expertly balanced cast and a good story full of great character development and action, anime fan or not.

    • Interesting observation. I would actually have to say I find large casts more workable in visual media – as long as the show has enough time incorporate them all. For example, the people in Band of Brothers are much easier to keep track of in the miniseries than the book. But they would have never worked, in such bulk, in a two-hour movie (but, then again, Ridley Scott pulled off a similarly large cast beautifully in Black Hawk Down).

  12. I was just thinking, because I write thrillers… I’ve written four of them already, and when we’re talking (or reading) about mysteries, it’s difficult to save the number of caracthers, especially those who could be the killer, or the bad guy.
    Thanks for your help!
    Now I’ll read your blog every day! =D

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