Writing Mistakes of My Younger Self: Too Many Characters

Hello and welcome! This article is the first part of a new, five-post series I’m doing on the blog. I recently unearthed a copy of the novel manuscript I wrote when I was 13 and reread parts of it. With the editing abilities I’ve gained in the last decade, I’ll be analyzing the major flaws in my manuscript in hopes of helping myself and other writers avoid the same pitfalls.

Writing mistakes 1

Let’s dive into Major Flaw #1: too many characters. Allow me to clarify for a moment. There are some books out there that have a large cast of characters, yet handle them very well—the Harry Potter series comes to mind, as do the Redwall books. In those novels, all the characters serve specific purposes. This is not the case in my poor old manuscript. Some of my characters have important roles, but many of them are essentially warm bodies along for the ride.

When I wrote this manuscript, it had only been a year or two since I first read The Lord of the Rings books and watched the movies. Naturally, when I began my fantasy novel, I patterned some concepts (both consciously and unconsciously) after Tolkien’s work, which I considered to be the epitome of a good fantasy tale. My manuscript ended up featuring a long journey and, essentially, a fellowship of allied characters (sound familiar?).

When Tolkien created his Fellowship, he chose specific characters to fill important roles in the storyline. Can you imagine how the journey through Moria would have been deficient if Gimli, or Gandalf, hadn’t been there? What about how it would have been less exciting if Elrond came along? He’s such a powerful character that his presence would have removed a lot of the story tension.

Moreover, Tolkien had the sense to break up the Fellowship after the first book. He knew nine central characters would be too much to manage throughout the series, so he split them into smaller groups and had each group accomplish a task that was vital to the storyline.

When I wrote my own manuscript, I didn’t understand any of this. I just knew I’d created a bunch of characters I liked and I wanted to throw them all into the spotlight. Here’s a summary of what that looked like: the story starts off with three humans (my main character, her brother, and her best friend). When they begin their journey, they’re joined by three talking horses, which makes practical sense for travel, at least. A short time later, three winged horses join the group, which makes the first group of equines a bit superfluous. Then, two talking big cats (a cougar and a black panther) get added in. And then (oh, you thought I was done?) three more humans—with their own non-talking horses, I might add—complete the party.

Do you see how this might have been a bit much?

The big problem, as I’ve mentioned, is that most of these characters don’t serve a specific purpose. The two types of horses, for example, are just different iterations of equine characters who help the humans travel. There’s no need to have both, but I was a horse-crazy kid, so there you have it. Even the big cats don’t add much because they don’t do anything on the journey that couldn’t be done by another character. If I want to get really brutal, I’m not even sure the main character’s best friend is a necessary character because her brother fills a best-friend-type role.

When you plan your story characters, ask yourself what needs the story has. What tasks must be accomplished and what purposes must be served? Which of these needs could be combined and addressed by a single character? Then, once you’ve determined the needs, plan the characters.

Creating characters is tons of fun, which is why writers often create too many. But it’s more fulfilling to write a few well-rounded characters than a ton of flat ones, as my old manuscript illustrates. If you create a fantastic character that just doesn’t fit in your novel, well, that’s when you write a second novel!

What experience have you had with this writing pitfall? Leave me a comment below!

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