THE FOLLOWING CONVERSATION, WHICH IS BASED ON A REAL EMAIL EXCHANGE WITH MY AGENT, HAS BEEN SET IN A 1920’S HARD-BOILED DETECTIVE NOVEL FOR DRAMATIC PURPOSES.
So I pick up the telephone and wouldn’tcha know—it’s my agent. “Too many characters in your manuscript,” she says to me.
So I says to my agent, I says, “Well, golly. What do I do?”
“Kill two of ’em. Kill two of ’em dead.”
Course, I know my agent isn’t suggesting I put a hit out on my characters, but—ha!—wouldn’t it be a laugh if she was. “Suppose we edit out this one dame,” I says to her (I didn’t much like that character anyway), “but instead of killing this other fella, suppose we de-emphasize him. I can cut back his description, and hey, I can un-name him, too. That way, the amount of words devoted to him is more proportional-like, as far as his role in the story goes.”
“That sounds like berries to me!”
“Says you,” I says to her, and I says it with a scowl.
“Don’t be a wet rag. Berries means your idea is good.”
“I got another one.”
“Tell me, will ya?”
“How ’bout I de-emphasize and un-name a few more of my smaller characters, so as to signal to readers that those characters are inconsequential when it comes to solving the mystery? That way, readers won’t have to remember as many names.”
“Well, say, you’re plumb full of good ideas.”
“What’s with all the talk about fruit?”
Bad jokes about berries and plums aside, below is a list of ways you can de-emphasize or delete some of the smaller characters in your manuscript. Do you have to do this? Not at all. It’s particularly useful if A—you have a lot of characters, which can make it taxing for readers memory-wise; or B—like me, you’re writing in the crime genre, in which case, your readers are doing their very best to keep up with your foreshadowing and clues, also taxing memory-wise; or C—also like me, your agent has quite reasonably suggested your manuscript could stand to lose ten or so thousand words, and she’d be right. Do you have to do all of these things for each character you want to remove emphasis from? Again, not at all.
1. Un-name a character: This doesn’t mean they don’t have a name, just that your POV character never knew it, can’t remember it, or doesn’t mention it. “My first college roommate smelled vaguely combustible.” Your POV character could be doing or thinking about something else while introductions are happening and miss them. You could do a little telling to skip right over names: “While Simone made the introductions, I downed glass three of wine.”
2. Cut a character’s airtime: Ask yourself, is my description of the character proportionate to their role? Do they need that much dialogue? Have I given readers the false impression that this character will appear again later in the story?
3. Cut back (or cut completely) characters whose purpose is redundant: If there are two characters who are in your story for essentially the same purpose, consider cutting one and giving their actions/dialogue to the remaining character. In one of my books, I had a burn patient’s fiancé and mother both answering my protagonist reporter’s questions, so I instead I gave the mother all the dialogue, including a mention of the fiancé being overseas and trying to catch a flight home.
4. Cut the whole character: Do your readers need a play-by-play of your character being led to their table by the maître d’, or could you just jump, perhaps with a bit of narrative summary or maybe a scene break, to a more interesting spot? “I had never seen so many frogs’ legs in my life.”
This post is part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop. So many great blogs to keep hopping through. Click here to join the hop and to see what other writing tips you can glean from this month’s edition.
Have you de-emphasized or un-named a smaller character before? Am I missing ways this can be accomplished? Share your thoughts in the comments.