You’re writing the first draft of your novel. A beta reader has pointed out that you may have too many named characters for the reader to keep track of, and now you're on a mission to whittle down your cast of thousands.
But who should go and who should stay? What is the optimal number of characters for a book? Some say only four, others fifteen, but I say introduce however many characters it takes to tell the story but use common sense. Put the reader first—they must be able to keep them straight without any effort.
When you introduce a named character, ask yourself if it is someone the reader should remember. Does he or she offer information the protagonist and reader must know? Some characters will give us clues to help our protagonist complete his/her quest. Others show us something about the protagonist, give us a clue into their personality or past.
Does the person return later in the story or does he or she act as part of the setting, showing the scenery of, say, a coffee shop, or a store?
Only give names to characters who advance the plot.
In an excellent article on screenwriting, Christina Hamlett of the Writer’s Store writes:
“In a screenplay, the rhythm you're attempting to establish--along with the emotional investment you're asking a reader to make--is disrupted whenever you devote more than two lines of introduction to a character who is simply there to take up space. In order to justify their existence, each player in your script should perform a unique function or deliver a specific line that:
“If you've included characters who don't fulfill one or more of these jobs, they're probably not critical to the storyline and can be deleted.” (End of quoted text.)
While she is speaking of screenplays, this is true of a novel or short story. A name implies a character is an important part of the story. Ask yourself if the character is an example of “Chekhov’s Gun.” Does this character serve a purpose the reader must know? If not, don’t give them a name.
Consider this passage, which takes place in an inn and involves a conversation overheard from a table adjacent to the protagonists:
The older merchant’s face darkened at the mention of the prince and his henchman. Quickly looking over his shoulder at the other guests in the common room, he hushed his son. “We’ll have no more mention of them at this table. If the wrong person overhears such talk, we’ll all end our days in our own beds with our throats slit!”
Culyn’s eyebrow rose, and he looked at Jack, who nodded.
Despite the fact the merchant and his sons give the protagonists information they needed, they are in this scene for only one purpose: to be overheard and don't appear again. For this reason, only Jack and Culyn, and the three others of their party are named in the full transcript of this scene.
Novelists can learn a great deal about how to write a good, concise scene from screenwriters. An excellent book I have gained a lot of knowledge from is Story by Robert McKee. If you can get your hands on a copy, I highly recommend it.
We want the reader to stay focused on the protagonist(s) and their story. The second draft is where we make every effort to find the distractions we may have inadvertently introduced in our rough draft, and extraneous named characters is an easy one to fix. Simply remove their name and identify them in general terms. The reader will move on and forget about them, but the information they imparted will remain.
Credits and Attributions:
Too many characters? by Connie J. Jasperson was first published on Life in the Realm of Fantasy, on Feb 1, 2017. Reprinted by Permission.
Credit: Minor Characters Don't Need Major Introductions, Christina Hamlett, Copyright © 1982 - 2017 The Writers Store ® Incorporated.
Connie J. Jasperson is an author and blogger and can be found blogging regularly at Life in the Realm of Fantasy
There are times when getting your phrasing right is confusing. Many frequently used words are "homonyms" or soundalike words.
At times, only a homonym, a word that sounds very much like another, can be used in a sentence. That similarity makes it hard to know which word is correct in each circumstance, and when you are spewing the first draft of a manuscript, autocorrect may "help you" by inserting the wrong instance of those words. If their meaning is similar but not the same, negotiating the chicken yard of your manuscript in the second draft becomes quite tricky.
This is where the diligent author does a little research. We go to the internet and Google every possible spelling of the word and decide which of the sound-alike words is the one we want to use.
Consider whether or not you want to use the word "ensure."
There are three words that could work, and they sound alike. They have similar but different meanings. So I do my research:
Assure: promise, as in I assure you the house is clean.
Ensure: confirm, as in Ensure that you have set the burglar alarm before going on a long trip.
Insure: protect with an insurance policy, as in Insure your home for your peace of mind.
Some other oft confused soundalikes are (these are borrowed directly from the Purdue Online Writing Lab)
How about the soundalikes, Than and Then?
used in comparison statements: He is richer than I.
Than: used in statements of preference: I would rather dance than eat.
used to suggest quantities beyond a specified amount: Read more than the first paragraph.
a time other than now: He was younger then. She will start her new job then.
Then: next in time, space, or order: First we must study; then we can play.
suggesting a logical conclusion: If you've studied hard, then the exam should be no problem.
Their, There, They're
(This is a place word, and so it contains the word here.)
(Pronouns have apostrophes only when two words are being shortened into one.)
To, Too, Two
Two, twelve, and between are all words related to the number 2, and all contain the letters tw.
Too can also mean or can be an intensifier, and you might say that it contains an extra o ("one
One of my worst failings is the word "it." If I am going to muck up my manuscript, this word will be a major culprit. I try to do a global search for every instance, and make sure the word is correctly used:
Its… it’s… which is what and when to use it?
The trouble here can be found in the apostrophe. In probably 99% of English words an apostrophe indicates possession, but once in a while, it indicates a contraction.
I highly recommend you go to the Purdue Online Writing Lab for a complete list of often used homonyms. Purdue OWL is an excellent resource for information crucial to the craft of writing. Much of what I know about the craft comes from there.
When you're in the throes of a writing binge, these little no-no's will pop up and confuse you the second draft. The problem is, you will see it as you intend it to be, not as it is written, so these are words you must pay attention to. Sometimes, doing a global search will locate these little inconveniences.
Some words stick out like sore thumbs:
But some like
are so frequently confused and misused in our modern dialect that it is best to simply look it up to make sure you are using the right word for that context. If you search for these now, you will save your editor having to do this for you, and your edit will be much more productive.
Searching for these bloopers is what I like to think of as sorting the rattlesnakes out of the chicken yard and is part of making your manuscript submission-ready.
Sorting out the soundalike words by Connie J. Jasperson © 2017-2018 was first published Feb 15, 2017 on Life in the Realm of Fantasy. Reprinted by Permission.
" Spelling: Common Words that Sound Alike," Purdue OWL, Contributors: Purdue OWL, https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/660/01/ (accessed Feb 26, 2018)
Connie J. Jasperson is an author and blogger and can be found blogging regularly at Life in the Realm of Fantasy.