I read this great blog post the other day about how to bring minor characters to life. Minor characters can be fantastic, and no less loved or intriguing for not being top of the bill. In editng my current novel I have found, however, that I am guilty of writing in minor characters that may not need to be there at all.
In the first draft, my protagonist has a best friend. I called her Deb. Deb had a few interesting personality quirks, was amusing enough, and ticked the “My Main Character Must Have Relationships and Friends” box. To be honest, I didn’t really care much about her one way or another (sorry, Deb) but she was, I was certain, the sort of character who was Necessary. It’s all right, I thought, as I wrote several banal scenes that were supposed to somehow shed light on my main character and her story. I can flesh this out when I come to edit.
Elsewhere in the novel, a good long while after we meet Deb, I have two other characters. Twins, Jamie and Beth Kennedy are rich, somewhat entitled, and, most importantly, vital to the plot. That fact has never been in any doubt. I know those two inside out, and they are the sort of characters that you fully suspect are off doing their own thing the moment your back is turned. And yet, they don’t show up until a good 10,000 words in, whereas Deb, uninspiring, one-dimensional Deb, had her debut at least 5,000 words before them, despite doing nothing to advance the plot whatsoever.
Something just wasn’t right.
As a result, when I came to look at the first 20K at edit time, I was brave. Taking the literary bull by the horns, I had Jamie nearly mow my protagonist down in his bright orange monstrosity of a car within the first chapter. Then, with some re-writing and judicious use of the delete key, Beth accompanied her on a pivotal shopping trip in chapter three. Lo and behold, the need for Deb was removed just like that. Yes, my protagonist may have a best friend, but she apparently doesn’t feature very highly in this particular story, or at least not in the way I tried to make her. By being fixed on where the story needed to go and who actually needed to be there, I removed one character but improved two by bringing them into the story early on where they needed to be.
It got me thinking over whether I would find the same with other characters along the way. I strongly suspect that one of the random maids may have to go or be reduced to a non-speaking, right in the background role. My historian-cum-psychic is, at present, something of a cardboard cut out, but I can see though what needs to be done with her, how to save her from the same fate as poor old Deb. The same goes for the loveable (and, if you listen to some people, potentially psychotic) village Vicar. They aren’t fully drawn at the moment, but they can and will be. The difference between these two and Deb? They have a purpose. They have a place in the story that cannot be filled by anyone else. They advance the plot and my protagonist’s understanding of her situation, and, hopefully, can be seen as having their own stories and lives, even if only a brief part of that comes into this particular novel.
As with any aspect of writing, being too precious over words, concepts, or even characters, can have a detrimental and even fatal impact on a story. With all the fleshing out in the world, there just wasn’t going to be a place for Deb, and so, with the greater good of the novel and hopeful enjoyment of my readers, she had to go.
Will I even recognise my own novel when I get to the end of editing it? Probably not, but one thing I am certain of – this isn’t going to be a bad thing.