Cut or Combine Characters

Anton Chekhov said, “Don’t have too many characters. The center of gravity should be two: he and she.” And Stephen Koch says, “The warning sign of a story that is growing disorganized is likely to be too many characters, and the solution to that problem is likely to be the discovery of the one character—your protagonist—whose fate matters most.”

When I’m editing books, one of the main things I look for is characters who aren’t necessary (or necessary enough) to the story.

Your characters are like your children. The idea of cutting any of your characters is always a hard decision to make for my authors. And yet, after they do it, they sigh in relief and say, “Wow! The story is so much cleaner. You’re a genius.”

I’m not a genius. I just know authors, and authors have a tendency to add characters that end up distracting the reader from main story.

How to Save Time Cutting by Combining Your Characters

Cutting characters can be hard logistically. What do you do with all of the scenes, the lines of dialogue, the action attributed to the character.

One effective trick is to combine similar characters rather than cutting them. I’ve had authors combine son and father’s, brother’s and sisters, and even friends together into one character.

The point behind this is that it takes a long time for your readers to develop a deep relationship with characters, and thus, to effectively build those relationships between character and reader, you want to have as few characters as possible to carry your story forward.

Story Audit

Audit the story you chose in the first lesson with the following questions:

  • Do you have too many characters?
  • Which character can you cut?
  • Can you combine any characters?

Let us know how your audit went in the comments section below.

Ready for the next lesson? Click here

  • BernardT

    As per an earlier comment, this was only ever a SHORT story! However, I did find two passing minor characters that I was able to eliminate, and another that could be simplified to make more room for the main story. Good stuff.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Awesome.

  • http://stacyclaflin.com/ Stacy

    I’ve got two characters, so I think I’m good! :) But this is something that is definitely worth consideration in my novels.

  • Audrey Chin

    Hmmm… well what I’m posting is the sequel to a 90,000 word novel … so it’s a bit hard to cut the backstory characters. I think I ended up with protagonist, husband, dead son, mother and father, 4 random school girls, a doorman and a taxidriver. Rather too many I fear. I guess it’s going to go under the knife again!

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      In a short short story?! Yes I think that’s probably a few too many.

  • Mirelba

    Not much to cut, there were only 2 characters to begin with. Unless a phone call from a third who never speaks counts as another character… But I agree, these are definitely things to keep in mind when working on longer pieces.

  • Elisabeth

    Hmm, I think I may have the opposite problem: including enough characters. But that’s because I’m writing memoir, and (a) it’s mostly about me and (b) I’m nervous about talking too much about real people.

    • Heather Reed

      Memoir is hard for me too. I want to tell the truth of what happened, but how do I do that when I also don’t want to shame or hurt anyone? I guess the way to do it is to “tell the truth, but tell it slant”? (Dickenson)

  • http://ya-asylum.com/ Kim

    I’m struggling with this question for my current WIP. I’ll really have to think about this.