Too Many Unnecessary Characters

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Too Many Unnecessary Characters

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Character redundancy boils down to too many unnecessary characters.  It's a common pitfall for writers of all genres who are working in long fiction-lengths.  It doesn't happen as much in the shorter fiction lengths because there is just not enough room. 

Main Characters.  Main characters are the ones who either tell the story through their viewpoints, or significantly influence the action, or both.  There are rare exceptions:  Nick Carraway narrates The Great Gatsby but doesn't do much to shape the plot. At a minimum, the main characters will include the hero or heroine, the love interest, and maybe the villain.  (Some stories don't have villains or the villain is only a supporting character.)

Supporting Characters.  Then we have the supporting characters.  They usually don't get viewpoints.  Exceptions to this include mysteries which slip into their viewpoints to create suspense or show us something that the main character isn't supposed to know.  The supporting characters get a lot to do as they help or hinder the main characters.  Character redundancy usually happens with them.

Walk-on Characters.  Last are the walk-ons.  In movies, these are usually non-speaking parts for actors that are part of the background.  I use the term in fiction to mean characters that briefly interact with main characters or supporting characters in a scene, and then probably don't show up again.  Often, they don't even get names. 

Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, I can mention a few obvious walk-ons:  the waitress, the taxi driver, or the bystander who witnesses the crime.  Or in fantasy fiction, the innkeeper, the stable boy, or the henchman.  Most writers have no problems giving us just the right number of walk-ons and no more because walk-ons get created out of the situations that the main characters encounter.  One taxi ride gives us one taxi driver, and so on.

How Character Redundancy Happens.  Character redundancy happens when the writer goes overboard, usually with the supporting characters and sometimes even with the main characters.  It tends to happen in long fiction with multiple third-person viewpoints.  We readers get introduced to the main character and not just one, or two, but three or four sidekicks.  Two or three mentors.  Two or three villains and maybe three love-interest characters.  Two potential lovers for our main character are perfect to create a love-triangle with a lot of sexual tension.  But do we really need more than two?

The big problem with character redundancy is that for each character, it dilutes both personality and influence.  There are less colorful traits to go around in such an unnecessarily huge cast, and each character gets less to do.  Writers who are most susceptible to this failing?  Those who (1) love creating characters, and (2) can't bear to cut anything that they've worked so hard to write.

What to do?  First, learn to recognize when you have too many characters of a certain type.  Try looking at characters by function:  how many narrators, sidekicks, lovers, or villains do you have?  Then examine your characters by archetype:  how many Rebels, Cynics, Innocents, Mentors, or Martyrs do you have? 

Don't forget to look at the main character's best friends and siblings.  It's very common for the main character to have too many of those.  Wherever possible, combine the extraneous characters into a single, more complex personality who will have more to do in the story.  The fewer characters you have, the more personality traits you can lavish upon them and the more impact they will have on the story.  The fewer characters you have, the more they will stand out and dazzle your readers.

Examples of Character Redundancy

Take my criticisms with a big grain of salt, bearing in mind that I here at Obsidianbookshelf.com have a bias for very streamlined fiction.  Then consider the following.

  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.  Do we need four hobbits where two (Sam and Frodo) would do?  Wouldn't Aragorn have been much more interesting if he absorbed Boromir's flaws and then had to struggle with ambition and insecurity?
  • The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis.  Four kids?  Why not two?  Each would have more to do.  I never thought that Peter and Susan did much.  Edmund got to be a traitor and then redeem himself.  Lucy stole every scene and served as the embodiment of innocence and faith.  I think that there should have been a prompt staff reduction to just Edmund and Lucy, and Peter and Susan should have been handed their pink slips.
  • Dune by Frank Herbert.  Okay, I know I'm treading on sacred ground here.  But I've got to ask.  Do we really need "Beast" Rabban Harkonnen when we've already got Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen as the Baron's depraved nephew?  Do we really need both Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck as loyal Atreides liegemen?  One sings and one doesn't, but c'mon. 
  • Moonheart by Charles de Lint.  Holy archetypes!  We've got three REBELS, three INNOCENT maidens, and three wise old MENTORS.
  • The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling.  I know she's working in both the sprawling epic fantasy tradition and the sprawling Dickensian tradition.  But even so, geez!  Look at the villains:  Lord Voldemort, Dolores Umbridge, Draco Malfoy, Lucius Malfoy, Bellatrix Lestrange, Peter Pettigrew, and more.  Look at the mentors:  Dumbledore, Hagrid, Professor McGonagall, Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, Alastor "Mad Eye" Moody, and more.

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