cutting supporting characters

Hummus

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When plotting films and short stories I know people tend to follow the rule of cutting anything that is not plot-essential. So, in regards to characters, this would mean delete anyone who don't do enough heavy lifting to justify their screen time. If one character have, say, only one action that advances the story, bin them and this point will be worked into the plot through a main(er) character instead. So far, so good; makes sense when you are working within a time/word limit to cut as much as you can and so on.

With novels it's not as easy, I find. There is no immediate pressure to get out the big scissor, but the pacing will be a bloody mess if you use no scissors at all.
I have a few minor folks in my first draft who, while they wouldn't survive the criteria above, still give something to the story. They enrich the world, pass on exposition and ideas to the main character, or they're just (trying to be) funny. I usually don't cry when cutting scenes or plot points (less scenes equals less words, equals less prose to edit, equals I can spend more time chilling out eating hummus), but, then again, perhaps I'm just too in love with these characters to think straight?

So, I guess my question is; how do you know what/who is relevant enough to stay on the pages?

Or do you think the cut-as-much-as-possible technique is always the way to roll?
 

picklematrix

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When plotting films and short stories I know people tend to follow the rule of cutting anything that is not plot-essential. So, in regards to characters, this would mean delete anyone who don't do enough heavy lifting to justify their screen time. If one character have, say, only one action that advances the story, bin them and this point will be worked into the plot through a main(er) character instead. So far, so good; makes sense when you are working within a time/word limit to cut as much as you can and so on.

With novels it's not as easy, I find. There is no immediate pressure to get out the big scissor, but the pacing will be a bloody mess if you use no scissors at all.
I have a few minor folks in my first draft who, while they wouldn't survive the criteria above, still give something to the story. They enrich the world, pass on exposition and ideas to the main character, or they're just (trying to be) funny. I usually don't cry when cutting scenes or plot points (less scenes equals less words, equals less prose to edit, equals I can spend more time chilling out eating hummus), but, then again, perhaps I'm just too in love with these characters to think straight?

So, I guess my question is; how do you know what/who is relevant enough to stay on the pages?

Or do you think the cut-as-much-as-possible technique is always the way to roll?
Some novels definitely contain characters that do not advance the plot as such. They may, however, be used to advance the world building and flesh out the setting, or perhaps function as a springboard for the mainer characters to work off of.
So you could say that in order to justify a place in the book, they just need to add a little something to the book, but not necessarily anything major. A novel can take its time, afterall.
 

Phyrebrat

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If they add enjoyment without making the pace sludgy, I tend to keep them. I was editing today and there are a few lines of dialogue that are said by the MCs and supporting characters which are not crucial to the story but add humour and a human touch.

My advice would be to keep them/it in, and then see what your betas say. If your MCs can do the lines then you might want to look at that, but I think these days there’s too much prescriptive advice on brutalist approaches to literature.

pH
 

Hummus

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@picklematrix
ok, so in your opinion there is no real risks with excessive minor characters in novels?
I mean... as long as the little something they add is not boring, yeah? - but then I am right back at the old "keep it entertaining" (and perhaps no other writing advice ever mattered..)
 

Hummus

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If they add enjoyment without making the pace sludgy, I tend to keep them. I was editing today and there are a few lines of dialogue that are said by the MCs and supporting characters which are not crucial to the story but add humour and a human touch.

My advice would be to keep them/it in, and then see what your betas say. If your MCs can do the lines then you might want to look at that, but I think these days there’s too much prescriptive advice on brutalist approaches to literature.

pH
Yeah... I have a love-hate relationship with the brutalist approach, but you're probably right - it's not the cure for everything.
 

Toby Frost

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I think the risk is that they either make the story too long or become a sort of shapeless chorus who just agree with the main characters, adding nothing. But I do agree that they help make the setting seem larger and more 3D. Unfortunately, I can't think of a clear way to decide when to cut. Hopefully you just get a feeling for it after a while. In the larger current project, I do sometimes worry whether a couple of characters are authors' darlings. It's very hard to tell from the inside. Maybe it would be worth asking beta readers to look out for it.
 

picklematrix

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@picklematrix
ok, so in your opinion there is no real risks with excessive minor characters in novels?
I mean... as long as the little something they add is not boring, yeah? - but then I am right back at the old "keep it entertaining" (and perhaps no other writing advice ever mattered..)
Yes, that's how I see it.
I can think of a few novels with minor characters that could be removed, and still leave the mechanics of the plot unchanged, but who were entertaining when introduced.
An example off the top of my head: Use of Weapons by Ian M Banks contains a section where one of the main characters makes a journey with an eccentric space crew who give themselves colds and viruses just for the novelty of feeling ill.
The story would be the same if this section, and the crew, where removed or glossed over in a sentence or two, but they are interesting enough to feel valuable upon reading. Its a pretty intrigiung bit of worldbuilding I think.
 
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L.L.Lotte

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I'd be a bit weary of writing a novel like how they do for screenplays. I can't think of a single book I've read where the book was more barebones than the TV adaption. Even GoT. By cutting some of the story and characters out, they lost a good chunk of what the readers liked about the book. They had to change some characters, their motivations, etc, to make the story work without those supporting characters, and many would say it wasn't for the better.

My first instinct would be that, the character must have had some reason to exist for you to write them into the story in the first place. And feeling such, I'd keep them in for the sake of that. You wouldn't be the first author to write in a minor character, have them show up and make some changes, then wander off into the great beyond.

Of course, without reading the entire manuscript it would be hard to advise whether you cut these particular characters you're thinking of, but there is nothing wrong with adding little details that create depth and flavour to your world. Books don't have the limitations of screenplays. Books don't have to shoehorn a plot into 1 hr of TV, which is why they cut so much out of adaptions...

You can put as much plot and detail into a book as you want, so why hold back?


Anyway, if you really have to cut them. I suppose, when I think about it. The questions I'd ask myself would be: does the effect they have on the plot matter? Does the plot still exist without them? And if not, is the plot element they affect important to the overall story -- can that plot element also be cut? Are the other character motivations believable without them? Is there any possibility these supporting characters might return at a later stage, or in a sequel novel?
 
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Plucky Novice

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I don't think there's anything wrong with having a large cast of characters so long as they don't detract from your MC(s). For me, understanding a cross-section of the people around your MC(s) is part of the world building. They are a part of the environment within which the story takes place; they embody culture, religion, economy, societal hierarchy, educational standards, immigration patterns, etc.

I have a fair number of named individual characters in my YA fantasy and had intended to trim them down when editing. When it came to it though, I found editing them out added nothing to the novel whereas leaving them in felt somehow enriching to the environment.

I did find that I wanted to develop another character more fully in order for them to feature in book 2 as more than just a bit part. To do that I sacrificed one of my other characters to give her more page time. This made her more prominent than the other flat characters and I think it carries forward into the second book quite naturally as a consequence (hopefully).
 

Hummus

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I'd be a bit weary of writing a novel like how they do for screenplays. I can't think of a single book I've read where the book was more barebones than the TV adaption. Even GoT. By cutting some of the story and characters out, they lost a good chunk of what the readers liked about the book. They had to change some characters, their motivations, etc, to make the story work without those supporting characters, and many would say it wasn't for the better.

My first instinct would be that, the character must have had some reason to exist for you to write them into the story in the first place. And feeling such, I'd keep them in for the sake of that. You wouldn't be the first author to write in a minor character, have them show up and make some changes, then wander off into the great beyond.

Of course, without reading the entire manuscript it would be hard to advise whether you cut these particular characters you're thinking of, but there is nothing wrong with adding little details that create depth and flavour to your world. Books don't have the limitations of screenplays. Books don't have to shoehorn a plot into 1 hr of TV, which is why they cut so much out of adaptions...

You can put as much plot and detail into a book as you want, so why hold back?


Anyway, if you really have to cut them. I suppose, when I think about it. The questions I'd ask myself would be: does the effect they have on the plot matter? Does the plot still exist without them? And if not, is the plot element they affect important to the overall story -- can that plot element also be cut? Are the other character motivations believable without them? Is there any possibility these supporting characters might return at a later stage, or in a sequel novel?
Alright, some good stuff, but I'm thinking (and please don't kill me for this) - even if the big fans say they prefer the novel, isn't TV, in general, more fun? Don't get me wrong, it's obvious which is the superior medium, but the risk of not holding back on a novel is that it might drag. Even novels that I love have parts that I find boring - where you would sort of gloss over a paragraph or two (this might be a less common problem when it comes to dialogue, which is easier to digest, but anyway you get the idea). I'm thinking there might be something to learn about pacing/plotting from screenwriters here, but uh, perhaps it's just about finding the balance.

When I think about it, fantasy works tend to have loads of minor characters in them, don't they? Hogwarts would feel empty without them, and Harry Potter still never bored me growing up. (Unless JK had loads of boring hufflepuffs just sitting around being boring in her first drafts? Will we ever know for sure?)

I have a fair number of named individual characters in my YA fantasy and had intended to trim them down when editing. When it came to it though, I found editing them out added nothing to the novel whereas leaving them in felt somehow enriching to the environment.
This is interesting. That's worth a try, with a lot of the editing stuff, I'm thinking. Removing it and seeing what version flows.
.
 

CTRandall

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I prefer working with a few main characters, as well, to the point that, in an early draft of my WiP, one beta-reader asked for more characters. I found that giving just a little more to a couple of minor characters helped add depth and drama to the main characters and the story. It is a fine line, though, between that and adding so much that it confuses things or bogs down the story. Getting that balance right is annoyingly tricky for me.
 

Jo Zebedee

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blah - flags. So many flags.
I prefer working with a few main characters, as well, to the point that, in an early draft of my WiP, one beta-reader asked for more characters. I found that giving just a little more to a couple of minor characters helped add depth and drama to the main characters and the story. It is a fine line, though, between that and adding so much that it confuses things or bogs down the story. Getting that balance right is annoyingly tricky for me.
Tbf i had 16 point of view characters in Abendau and many secondary peeps. I may not practice what I preach :D
 

The Big Peat

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This is a piece of string question where everyone will have different answers and the correct answer is "Whatever you like the most X Whatever you can sell to the most people" - or to put it another way, its the Goldilocks answer of "Just Right" and no one can tell you for sure what it is.

What I can tell you is all the screenplay comparisons are misleading in the same way using a recipe for cooking steaks would be misleading for cooking chicken breast. There's a lot of useful advice but it has to be adjusted for the differences. The point of books is you have far more space to convey information and it is expected that more consumer time will be used per episode; use it. And as for the idea TV is more fun - personally, no way.

That said, to answer your question, my best piece of advice does indeed come from screenplays. Terry Rossio once said that every line should either Advance The Plot, Reveal Something About The Characters, or Get A Laugh - and ideally all three.

You can extend that idea with a bit of rewording to any character or scene in a book. If they pass, you can keep it. You don't have to - if you think you can combine two minor characters to make one more interesting character, why not - but you can. And sometimes a minor character who walks on and says what they have to say then walks off never to be seen again keeps the story moving faster than using a more major character whose storylin then demands faith. Few fantasy writers wrote stories as fast moving as David Gemmell and he used maybe 20 PoV characters in his first book, some only in the book as long as their PoV scene.

Now, if for some reason you want to go for a very pared down approach because that's what you want, then sure, do it. But you don't have to.
 

Jo Zebedee

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blah - flags. So many flags.
This is a fun thread from long ago:

 

Hummus

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Thanks guys, I see there is no straight forward answer to this question, but nonetheless I find it helpful to hear how other people approach it!
 

tinkerdan

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I like to think about the character in a bottle. Sort of like the ship in a bottle.
We don't have to worry about how he got there just that he is and no one can get in the bottle with him.
Now if you think you can write a character who is in this bottle alone and do it well enough then I suppose you don't need other characters.

Maybe that's a bit to drastic.

However; if you write a character in a city the size of New York and they walk the streets- any time of day and never see other people, never hear other people never interact with other people--I'd start to think this was a twilight zone episode.

I know: I'm being unreasonable.

You don't want to overdo the world building--however you want the reader to have in mind something more than three or four blank walls and a featureless floor; so you need to do some world building and sometimes that includes bodies that walk through a scene with no other purpose than to remind the reader that they are not alone in this vast world you created.

I've had a few of those and oddly enough they ended up playing an important part later. My philosophy is that if some character intrudes on your scene you have a perfect right to use them in some later scene even if it's just to kill them; which they might justly deserve.

Any board meeting with only the important characters present would probably not qualify as a board meeting--so call it as it is--some clandestine meeting between two possibly rogue board members.
 

Dennis E. Taylor

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I went through this with editing for Outland. The original had a lot of minor characters coming in and doing stuff. I was trying to give a flavor of the chaos that you'd get when a large group of people are working on a common goal without some kind of central authority.

However, on this iteration I had a professional editor. It was a running battle between us, arguing over each and every bit part. I ended up moving a lot of bit scenes to one of the main characters, and for the rest, I decreased the number of minor characters and started re-using them for multiple scenes. Probably cut my cast in half in the end, without losing too many scenes.
 

Parson

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Having just listened to Outland. I was thinking about it while reading this thread. Even given what @Dennis E. Taylor said above he still has a lot of bit characters. I think the good thing about bit characters, especially in a series is that they can arise for important plot developments at a later time. (I have a particular character in mind from Outland, but don't want to subvert this thread or be guilty of a spoiler.)
 
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