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Terrible Tips Tuesday: Downsizing Characters

March 9, 2010

OK, let me get into my Sophia from the “Golden Girls” storytelling voice here.  Picture it, Detroit, 2005.  I was working on a story called The Best Light.  I already had most of the story thought up.  It would be about a jaded middle-aged nature photographer who goes to a small New Mexico town and meets a younger woman who yearns to see the world.  Mayhem ensues.

In my original concept I thought Frank would go there looking for his ex-girlfriend who was the love of his life and then he meets this other girl and she has some kind of issue with her mom.  So I’m walking along and it hits me like the proverbial thunderbolt:  why am I making up both the ex-girlfriend and the other girl’s mom?  What if they’re the same person?  BOOM!  The last pieces fall into place.

More importantly though what I did is make it so I only had to come up with one character instead of two.  That meant only have to come up with one backstory, one physical description, and so forth.  This is the concept of Economy of Characters and it’s one I like to practice because I’m lazy and because it makes sense.

One of those annoying things in some books is when there’s too many characters.  I was recently rereading Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Trilogy and what annoyed me in the first book was there were so many characters.  All these kings and princes and queens and knights and servants and so forth.  It was the kind of book that included a character reference before the text so you could go back to look up who’s who.  If you need a cheat sheet to keep track of everyone then you have too many characters.  You need to economize and get rid of a few.

There’s a couple of ways to do that.  The first is what I did with my story.  I took what would have been two characters and found a way to combine them into one character.  This had the positive benefit of also creating a connection between Frank and the girl he meets.  This happens in biopic movies a lot.  For instance I watched Confessions of a Dangerous Mind the other day and a disclaimer after the movie indicated some of the characters were composites of more than one real person.  This happens for a couple of practical reasons.  One is that there’s only so much screen time.  Another is that it’s cost effective; when you’ve already hired George Clooney, Julia Roberts, and Drew Barrymore you need to look for other ways to keep the budget down.

In books this isn’t as much of a problem, but there’s still only so many pages.  It takes away from the story when you have to go and describe the backstory of another character and what he/she looks like and so forth.  If you can combine him/her with someone else why not do it and save time for you and the reader?  Damned straight.

The other thing you can do is to genericize a character.  Instead of saying Queen Matilda the Great of Siluria you could just say “the queen of Siluria.”  There you go, one less name I have to remember.  You can’t do this if she’s actually going to contribute to the story, but if all that happens is your character kisses her hands and exchanges pleasantries, why bother with the name?  I have enough to keep track of already, not just with the book but life in general.  So the less I have to remember, the better.

In that same vein, we don’t need the life story of every milkman, newspaper vendor, grocery store cashier, and waitress the main character comes into contact with.  Instead of saying, “Ron had been the milkman for the last twenty years, ever since he came home from the war and married his high school sweetheart.  He left a bottle of milk on the doorstep every morning at 5am.”  You can just say:  “The milkman left a bottle of milk on the doorstep every morning at 5am.”  Because while it’s neat to know a little more about the milkman, unless he’s going to figure into the actual story I don’t give a shit.  This is more of a problem in “literary” novels.  In particular it was a bone of contention in the recent Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving.  Especially during a stop in Iowa there were all these Asian characters with different names and backgrounds and yadda yadda and none of them figured into the main story at all.  So why the hell do I care?  But it’s easy to fall into this when you’re writing “literary fiction” and trying to show the depth of the world around the character and such.  But for the reader it can be a real snooze.

One particular area I wanted to mention, especially with “literary” books are children.  Unless the kids are actually going to be important to the story, you don’t need more than one.  An example that springs to mind is The Shipping News.  There were two kids in the book, but for the movie adaptation they did as I described above and combined the kids into one.  Did I miss the second child?  No.  This is because when you’re dealing with grownups in a story, the kids most times aren’t contributing a lot to the plot.  They’re just kind of there in the background.  So you don’t need a whole Brady Bunch there because other than taking them to soccer practice or tucking them in, your characters probably aren’t going to do a whole lot with the kids.  In which case you just need one kid.  In some cases you don’t need any at all.  When I read The 158-Pound Marriage by John Irving it was just creepy that these two wife-swapping couples were doing all of this while they each had a pair of kids.  (The kids wound up with probably three lines total too, so they weren’t very important to the story.)  Having the kids around made me think these people were bad parents on top of everything else.  Not what you want if I’m supposed to be rooting for them.

The obvious exception is if you’re writing a story where the kids are important.  For instance The Corrections is about a family and the relationships between the parents and three kids.  It goes from present to past to present so we can see how each kid’s relationship with his/her parents and siblings led to how him/her turned out as an adult.  So you need more than one kid as a point of comparison.

Another example is like The World According to Garp where you’re going to sacrifice one kid to show how it affects the rest of the family.  We Were the Mulvaneys is another example of that, though it probably could have used at least one less kid in it.

Anyway, I hope I’m making it clear that when it comes to characters you don’t need to overdo it.  The fewer you have, the more time each can have and so the more developed they can be.  If you want a non-book example of this, just watch the X-Men movies versus a single hero like Batman or Spider-Man.  Batman and Spidey are far more developed characters because the story only has to focus on one of them instead of five like X-Men.  With the X-Men movies you get that Star Trek effect where Kirk, Spock, and McCoy got the lion’s share of development while Uhura, Sulu, Chekov, and Scotty were more bit players.  (In the recent movie it’s more like Kirk, Spock, and Uhura with McCoy relegated to secondary status.)  That’s what happens anytime really you have an ensemble cast.  If you can avoid that and focus on just a couple of characters, you’ll be a lot better off.

So if you’re getting into the ensemble situation, look for some creative ways to pare down a few generally useless characters.

And that’s today’s Terrible Tip.  Come back in a couple days for another Read to Me Thursday where I yak about an issue from something I read recently.


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