extra characters?

Filed under: writing

Writing category fiction taught me several lessons, and one of the strongest was to never have any extra characters in your book. I’m not talking about walk-on parts, which aren’t really characters; I’m talking more about strong secondaries, people who should be important to the story, but don’t live up to that importance. Characters who just sort of sit there, and don’t move the story forward, or don’t cause any emotion to happen.

In real life, we have a lot of people in our lives who don’t have much relevance. They’re there because they have to be, but they might not change us in any real way or have much impact. Neighbours, relatives, acquaintances, work colleagues—they might be important to us, they might not be. Real life doesn’t centre around one person, and all of these people are their own heroes.

But fiction centres around your heroine(s) or hero(es). Everyone in their story should have some reason for being there, for (however briefly) taking centre stage. And yes, I know this isn’t always true. There are plenty of great books out there that have lots and lots of extraneous characters, who don’t have their own arcs or any purpose in the story and are just there because the author thought they probably would be, in real life.

But me…I’m anal. I need a reason for people to be in the pages of my book. If I find a character isn’t pulling his or her weight, I try to cut them and give their role to a person who does need to be there. Even the really minor characters need to have some point, even if I’m the only one who knows it. Generally, if the story works without a character, that character has to go. And preferably, every character who stays, has more than one reason for being there.

I make my characters justify their existence.

Which was why I’ve been struggling today, because I have a character who absolutely has to exist, in order for the plot to happen. However, she also has to leave almost immediately, and not reappear for the rest of the book. To me, this screams “PLOT DEVICE” in a big way and I was struggling with how to make her pull her weight more, and therefore have a more satisfying role in the story.

It occurred to me, finally, that I was bothered because this character (let’s call her X) only had one purpose in the story. I was trying to give her extra purpose by making the heroine have some issues with her, but the issues weren’t really working because X just wasn’t there, and besides, the poor heroine has enough frickin’ issues for one book, thank you very much. So I began thinking about this.

It seemed to me that as long as X had several reasons for being in the story, she could stay. And that I could revise the story so that I made more use of X, but not in ways that would pull the story out of kilter. Here are some of a reasons a secondary character might be in a story (any character, any story):

A) To further the plot
B) To create emotion
C) To reflect an aspect of the hero/heroine (similar, or contrasting)
D) To make the hero/heroine grow and change
E) To make another major character grow and change
F) To create conflict
G) To create pace
H) To provide a setting
I) To echo or further a theme, trope, or recurring imagery
J) To create a twist
K) To provide humour or pathos
L) To act as a stand-in for the reader (an example of this is Lockwood, in Wuthering Heights)
M) To be a sounding-board for the heroine/hero
N) Verisimilitude (that is, they just would be there in real life; this, to me, is the least convincing reason)

It seems to me that if a character can tick two or more of the boxes above, then s/he can be allowed to stay in the story, and the more boxes s/he ticks, the better. That is, s/he can further the plot and provide verisimilitude, but it’s better if she also provides humour and makes the heroine grow and change.

In this case, I figured out a way that I can revise my story so that my character X, who is necessary to the plot, and would be there in real life, can also create emotion, provide a setting, be a sounding board and echo a theme. So X, who once only ticked boxes A and M, now ticks A, B, G, H, L and M, and maybe even D, too.

Maybe this is a weird way of thinking, and it’s certainly very analytical and not something I’d go through for every single minor character. But it seems to have helped solve my problem of what to do with the extra character when I absolutely can’t cut her.

What do you think?

PS The marvellous Sarah Duncan has just put up a blog post about the opposite problem, when minor characters get too important. Check it out.

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23 Responses | TrackBack URL | Comments Feed

  1. I think that’s entirely reasonable, Julie. (Psst – you mean originally A and N)

    Characters in books have to be there for a good reason. If they were actors, you’d need to know the roles were worth shelling out wages on and maybe making the film go over budget.

    And I do think that making a character work harder for the book, makes them stronger.


  2. I think verisimilitude has to be my new word of the day!

    You are far too clever, madam.

    This book will be great, I just know it.

    Lots of love,



  3. Whoops, sorry Jan—I added items to the list and then didn’t edit.

    I like the paying wages for an actor analogy! That totally makes sense.


  4. Rach, I also love “verisimilitude”. There’s a great Teenage Fanclub song by that title on the Grand Prix album.


  5. Perfect timing for me! I have two secondary characters that could become one but I like both of them. I will now look to see if I can make both work for their money.


  6. The tick boxes are a great idea – they make you stop and really think about what a character’s doing.

    I’m in the early stages of a new book, and I shall be using it. Thanks Julie!


  7. Biddy, it’s doubly hard when you actually like the character. Maybe just adding one of these functions could help make them relevant without adding clutter. Of course sometimes you just have to cut and combine…


  8. Lizzie, I think I might find it hard if I went into a new book with an analytical list like this. I tend to be more instinctive with a first draft, use these things in the revision process. When I first wrote this X character, for example, I thought maybe she might end up having some relevance to the later plot, but it turned, as I wrote, out that she didn’t. That’s when I have to start justifying her.


  9. Thanks, Julie. This is brilliant.Almost like having a one to one session with you [which would be fab!]. I have a really strong secondary character who I have had to ‘tone down’ and given some of her lines to the heroine. I’m trying to make her fit into catagories M & C – and to ensure that I use her as a device to show the reader more about the heroine. Have emailed this to 2 of my friends and I know they’ll find it helpful, too. Many thanks, Lizzie <3


  10. OK, thought I was getting the hang of this, then my heroine morphed into my hero and now I have a story about a single transvestite. That can’t be right, can it?


  11. My mother is of Scottish heritage and I grew up with the motto ‘waste not want not’ so I tend to do this all the time – though without the cool list (note to self – get cool list!!!) But I definitely try and make my secondaries earn their money and am always looking for extra things they can do.

    But what I really wanted to say was – yay on your completely and utterly gorgeous new cover!!!! I love it so much!!


  12. Lizzie, that’s interesting that you’ve given the secondary character’s lines to the heroine! Sounds like an effective solution. I have actually done the exact opposite thing in my writing today—given the heroine’s lines to the secondary. Hmm.


  13. Lara, I’d buy that book!


  14. Yes Amanda, “waste not want not” is a good maxim for characters. The longer my books get, though, the more I find that it gets a bit harder, as there are just so many possible uses for characters. I may have to let myself relax a little bit and just let these people be…

    Or maybe not.

    Yay! I’m so glad you like my new cover! Thank you!


  15. Great post Julie! Loved it!


  16. Snap – I agree. I find that it works better when I don’t plan it too much. Plus of course dumb luck can be a big help as well!

    In the trilogy I’m doing now, I randomly made one of my secondary characters addicted to a book about body language. It was literally a throw away line to add some humour early on, but the amount of value it’s given so many of my scenes has been amazing. And no way could I have planned it on purpose cos I’m just not that clever!!!!


  17. Useful stuff.Right now I’m debating about killing off a secondary character–and melding her with another one–which would require a slightly implausible coincidence. But since she hits 5 or 6 of the things on your list, I think she gets a reprieve. Thanks!


  18. Thanks Lacey!

    Amanda, I love it when a character actually makes a choice that makes the whole book better. I can really see how that body language book would work. What fun.


  19. Thanks for visiting, Anne. And wow—did I save a life just then?? LOL!


  20. Great post! I’m diving back into my revisions on Monday and this is great food for thought, thank you.


  21. Good luck with the revisions, Charlotte. I visited your blog and it looks like you’re in a very exciting place with your writing. Hope it all goes really well for you. And thanks for visiting!


  22. I like your list. I recall killing off one character for exactly these reasons, which was amusing in a way because they were about to die anyway, but not in an essential way.


  23. Have been pondering this item for a couple of weeks. Also been avoiding my WIP as I was unhappy with it. Tonight I ditched 2700 words, because the scenes had been created to give more space to two characters – but one of the characters is, I think, of no great value and the other has achieved her purpose already…I hope. Just need to tidy up the gaps.


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