Killing Off Reducing Your Cast of Supporting Characters, Plus a New Excerpt from The Keeper’s Curse
“Chronicling The Craft” is an article series where I share my experience with working on my YA fantasy novel THE KEEPER’S CURSE, starting with the first draft and now into revisions. Each article contains a progress update as well as writing / revising tips and excerpts from the updated draft. Today’s installment celebrates 50% completion of Draft #2 of THE KEEPER’S CURSE.
First things first: Draft #2 is halfway done!!!!
I still can’t believe with how quickly the revision process is moving. That doesn’t mean it’s had its challenges – and it certainly has – but let’s compare it to the drafting process. I started Draft #2 about 6 months ago, just after Easter. At my current rate, I could finish it in April 2016, for a total of 1 year – half as long as it took me to write Draft #1 (about 25 months, or just over 2 years).
Of course, one never knows what can happen in 6 months time. But the point is, things are moving along, and I’m pleased with how much closer Draft #2 is getting to where this story deserves to be. That’s what counts most. 🙂
Let’s start with a progress report, then get to today’s tip and a new excerpt of TKC for your feedback.
The 50% Progress Report
As of yesterday, I had finished Page 202, which comes about three-quarters through Chapter 18. However, the numbers below are the ones I’m most excited about:
Total Word Count: 118,438 (9039 cut since the last update, 13,275 since revisions began)
Total Page Count: 398 (26 cut since the last update, 43 since revisions began)
SEE?!?! 😀 😀
Overwriting was one of Draft #1’s weaknesses, so getting the word and page counts down has been a huge priority for Draft #2. Seeing both numbers drop steadily has been rewarding, exciting, and a huge relief. 🙂 I’m still not sure if I’ll get Draft #2 down to 110K by the end, but 115K is a definite possibility.
Also, I’ve decided to reorder several plot points since the last update. In other words, scenes that originally happened later in the book have been moved to earlier chapters. If it sounds messy – you’re right, it can be. But when I was planning these revisions months ago, I discovered that certain scenes needed to happen sooner for three reasons:
- Improve the logic and flow of the protagonist’s character arc
- Replace boring or illogical scenes that needed to be cut from the story’s first half
- Help shorten overly-lengthy chapters in the story’s second half (and therefore decrease the overall word count)
Realizing this during the revision-planning process helped me figure out which plot points needed to be moved and where they needed to go. I have a few more to tackle from here on, and then it’s mostly chopping and refining (I think).
Today’s Tip: Recognizing When You Have Too Many Supporting Characters – and Reducing Your Cast Effectively
Last time on Chronicling The Craft, I mentioned that one of the unanticipated changes I’ve had to make to TKC was absorbing two supporting characters into one. A couple readers asked if I’d offer some tips on this. I decided to go one step further and discuss when and how to reduce your cast of supporting characters in general – because I’ve had to do that as well.
The Keeper’s Curse is, among other things, a quest story. Not only is my protagonist Eva traveling with her fellow Councilors, but they’re accompanying a small band of Mountain Folk as part of a diplomatic mission. As a result, Eva’s interactions with her fellow travelers – Fae and Mountain Folk alike – are crucial to her character arc as well as the story’s plot.
However, during Draft #2, I realized one of the major drawbacks of this particular cast of supporting characters: I had too many of them. Sure, 14 travelers (including the protagonist) sounded like a reasonable number when I was brainstorming or drafting. But once I got to the revision stage and saw the big picture more clearly, I realized I’d created an unwieldy mess where secondary characters were fighting for “page time.”
How did I remedy this? By going into “darling-killing” mode. 😦
Yep. And it wasn’t a decision I came to lightly, either. Not only would I need to eliminate certain characters completely (and sobbing and pouting before moving on), but I also needed to be strategic about those changes. I couldn’t cut and slash all over the place. Instead, I studied the travel party, noted the most glaring issues, and figured out how to resolve each one. And though I’m still in the middle of incorporating those resolutions into Draft #2, I feel more and more comfortable over time that I’ve made the right decisions.
So, how can writers recognize whether they have too many supporting characters? By paying attention to their own reactions while drafting or revisiting the story. Maybe one or more of these statements will sound familiar:
- “Wow. This character hasn’t spoken or been involved in a scene for a while.”
- “Hmmmmm. Characters A and B have very similar personalities or story roles.”
- “Um, what’s her purpose in this scene / story again?”
- “This story has WAAAAAAAY too many characters.”
If you’ve encountered any of the above statements while working on your story, chances are you have too characters. And if you’ve encountered two, three, or (as I did) all four statements – it’s time to say a few farewells, unfortunately.
Of course, deciding who should go and who should stay is easier said than done. However, knowing which questions to ask and which issues need to be addressed can help you recognize where and how to reduce your supporting cast. Here are some tips, based on my experience.
Step #1: Determine which characters are being shortchanged, and why.
First, take a hard look at your cast. How does each character stand out from the crowd? Does he/she have enough “page time” to establish personality, relationship to the protagonist, and overall role in the story? Also, does he/she make the most of said “page time” in order to connect with readers and prove his/her value as a character?
Depending on your answers, which will be unique to the story you’re building, you might find a variety of reasons why certain characters aren’t working. Below are the problems I discovered with some of my characters, as well as a few others:
- Fading Into the Background: Every character should be memorable because of personality, skills, unique role, or other reasons. If they aren’t, you risk letting them fade into the background – and your reader might not remember or connect with them. This doesn’t mean that your characters can’t be shy, quiet, or reserved – in fact, you might need such a character for your story. Just make sure to give them enough opportunities to shine and distinguish themselves from the rest of the ensemble.
- “Shared” Roles: What if two different characters have similar purposes in your story? For example, if your WIP features two bullies, do they use different “methods” of antagonizing other characters? Do they always appear together, or separately due to location or timing? Characters with overlapping or “shared” roles might seem repetitive to the reader – a problem that you, the writer, should try to avoid.
- Unclear Roles: Some characters might not appear often enough in the story and leave the reader wondering why they’re there in the first place. If that’s the case, perhaps those characters aren’t meant to be there at all.
- “Twin” Characters: Like with “Shared” Roles above, characters with an eerily similar combination of positive traits, quirks, or flaws can blend in the reader’s mind and make it difficult to tell them apart.
- Overpopulation: How do you feel when you read your story from a editorial or reviewer’s perspective? Does the size of your cast overwhelm you? Does the story seem too complex or feel weighed down because of all its subplots? Pay careful attention to your gut feeling. Unless you intend to have a scope as sweeping as that of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice saga, you may have overpopulated your story with supporting characters.
- Story-Specific Issues: Your story might present unique situations that can call for a large cast and potentially cheat certain characters of adequate “page time.” Make sure to review the plot, world-building, and other factors that can affect your supporting characters, including their interactions with your protagonist.
- High Word Count: While not exactly a character-related issue, a high word count can often result from having a massive cast. (A Song of Fire and Ice, anyone?) Unless you’re already a best-selling author, don’t consider your story an exception to the rule. Stick to recommended word counts for your target age range and genre, regardless of how you choose to publish – even if that means letting go of some of your characters.
Do you see an overall takeaway from the issues listed here? Ensure your story’s cast of supporting characters a) features memorable characters with distinct personalities and meaningful story roles, and b) doesn’t confuse or overwhelm your readers. As much as you want to write the stories you’ve always wanted to read, remember to keep your audience in mind. This applies not only to characters, but to every aspect of a story.
Step #2: Consider how certain cast reduction choices will impact your story.
Once you’ve figured out which issues to address, step back to review the big picture, and ask yourself how getting rid of certain characters will affect the story. How will scenes featuring these characters need to be revised? Does the plot still work without them? What about dialogue, conflict, and world-building?
Tough questions, indeed – but if you’re seriously considering downsizing your supporting cast, it’s crucial to understand how such changes will impact the WIP as well as the world you’ve created. Pressing the “Delete” key now, before you’ve thought things through, will only turn your beloved story into a mess – and neither you nor I want that to happen.
Be patient and methodical. Take the time to evaluate each character’s importance as well as the consequences of any cast reduction decisions before committing to such changes. This will help you determine which characters are or are not essential to the plot or the protagonist’s character arc, and which cuts are the right ones to make.
Step #3: Plan your changes for reducing your supporting cast, grab a box of tissues, and start revising.
In truth, you don’t have many options when it comes to reducing your cast. Either a character goes away completely or partially. (You’ll find out what I mean by “partially” shortly.) So, here are three strategies below for reducing your supporting cast:
- Erasing a Character(s): This might be the most logical choice if a character doesn’t stand out enough or have a clear purpose. If you choose this route, make sure you know how you’ll tie up the loose ends. Will other, more important characters take his place in his respective scenes, dialogue, and subplots? Or will those parts of the story be scratched out as well?
- Absorbing Characters: In instances such as “shared” roles and “twin” characters, you might want to combine two characters into one. This first requires a close examination of both characters to figure out which traits, flaws, physical features, and other characteristics you should keep. Then, revise the story as needed to reflect the absorbed characters.
- Simplifying or Eliminating Subplots: This last option is often a byproduct of erasing or absorbing characters. However, if the first two strategies aren’t enough, or if you want to save certain characters but realize your story may be too complex, simplifying or deleting subplots might be a good alternative. You’ll still have to make some cuts, but they could be worthwhile in the end.
Remember: The keys to this process are ensuring that each member of your story’s supporting cast is memorable and purposeful, and that the cast size doesn’t disorient the reader. Making the right decisions to achieve these goals won’t be easy. But if you’re willing to swallow your anxiety, think critically about your story, and summon the courage to do what needs to be done, you’ll walk away from this challenge with a tighter, stronger story with a colorful ensemble you can be proud of.
How will you know that you’ve made the right character cuts?
In the beginning, it’s going to hurt. As in, “OMG-I-swear-my-heart-has-been-ripped-out” hurt. Think of it as a writer’s grieving process. You might experience denial (“I can’t kill my darlings – I just can’t!”), anger (“I should just burn this manuscript!”), bargaining (“If only I’d thought of this before…”), and depression (“What’s the point of continuing with this draft?”) when cutting characters from your story, just as you would when killing other darlings. In fact, by reducing your supporting cast, you are killing some of your darlings.
The thing is, it takes time to accept major revisions to a story – usually days, weeks, maybe months. By then, your perspective on the cast reduction will most likely have changed. Perhaps when you imagine the story, you won’t see the eliminated characters anymore. The changes may have blended so seamlessly into the story’s fabric that you’ll have trouble remembering what had been there before. If this happens, it means that not only have you accepted the cast reduction, but that the changes you made were the right ones after all.
(NOTE: Originally I was going to share specifics about how I reduced my supporting cast in TKC. But since this post is already quite long, let me know if you’d like me to share it in the Comments section.)
Excerpts To Compare: The Last Page of Chapter 14 from The Keeper’s Curse
Like with the previous Chronicle, I’ll share two excerpts from TKC to show how the story has changed during Draft #2, and to give readers a chance to offer early feedback.
Today’s excerpts reflect the final page of Chapter 14 from the respective drafts. See what kinds of changes you notice when you compare the two. Also, if it’s possible, please let me know the following:
- What general comments do you have on the Draft #2 excerpt?
- Do you think Draft #2’s excerpt is an improvement over Draft #1’s? Why or why not?
- If you were reading the full manuscript, would the end of the Draft #2 version compel you to continue on to the next chapter?
When Aurek spoke again, his voice was taut with guilt. “I should have listened to you, Eva. If I had – ”
“Don’t be sorry. You have every reason to be stubborn with me.” I hung my head in remorse. “I deserve it.”
Aurek’s brow furrowed. “Why do you say that?”
I returned the look. “Because of what I did to you in the Armeseto. I forced you to fight me. I forced you to – ”
“Break my vows as a Mountain Man man. Yes.” Aurek left his horse and moved closer to me. “Yes, you did. But one wrongdoing doesn’t warrant another, Eva. We both made mistakes, and now we’ve learned from them. And I can’t stay angry with you if I need to trust you. So, perhaps we should move on and start over with each other.” He took my hands in his. “Would you be willing to do that?”
Whatever my first answer was, it fled me. My concentration was swept away by Aurek’s hands. They were broad and much larger than mine. My fingers rested in his calloused palms and felt the warmth and life held in his skin. Any trace of hatred for Mountain Men that still swam inside me dissolved then. It no longer mattered to me that Aurek’s kind had killed my parents. Today I had chosen, in a moment’s time, to save two of his companions. I made that choice because, in that same flitter of time, I understood how important it was for them to live. We were not just allies; we were equals, and I had chosen to honor that equality without realizing it.
And for the first time in years, I felt free of the heaviest weight I’d ever chosen to carry.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I can do that.”
Aurek squeezed my hands and smiled. “You have an extraordinary gift, Eva. Maybe you haven’t realized the power you hold in your hands. Your friends and allies should feel lucky to have you on their side.” He let go of my hands and leaned closer to me. “I know we do.”
I watched Aurek as he walked to his tent, still wondering whether I was more surprised by his change in behavior toward me or mine toward him. Then I thought of my mother’s ring. I raised my left hand and studied the pale heartstone again. Was it truly magic? I didn’t want to believe it was, yet the possibility flickered in my mind. So that means I can’t take you off my finger now, no? I asked the ring silently. It didn’t answer – how could it? – but no answer was needed.
I shook my head and started for the firepit. My next letter to Aunt Maji, I decided, was going to be a long one, and for good reason.
Aurek only stared at first. Then a smile dawned, slow and radiant and disarming. “Well, now that we’ve admitted enough mistakes for a lifetime, I say this calls for a truce.” He held out his hand. “What say you, Lady Councilor?”
Wonderment stilled me. Aurek had touched me once that evening, when he had pulled me to my feet by the firepit. This time, he had given me a choice: to touch him, a Mountain Man, on my own volition, just as I had decided to teach Willem. And I knew, almost instinctively, what I would choose.
I clasped Aurek’s hand. “I think I can do that, my lord.”
“Please, call me Aurek when we’re alone. And if it’s not too bold of me, I’d like to call you by your name.”
“But – ”
“Lady, I know an equal when I see one, and I intend to honor you as such. Not just because we’ve wronged each other, or because you’re our guide.” He took my other hand then. “You have a gift unlike anything I’ve ever seen. One that puts my swordsmanship to shame, and one that everyone in the company – even your own Council brothers – has talked about all afternoon. I would never ask you to spend your powers for the company’s sake. But I do hope you know how grateful I am to have you on our side.”
Hakria fluttered from my fingertips to my toes. I looked back and forth between Aurek’s hands, broad and calloused yet warm against mine, and his face. He was not too close, but close enough for me to see the deep, lustrous brown of his eyes – a very similar brown to my father’s eyes. Why hadn’t I realized it before? Had I been blinded by hatred for so long that I had ignored the most obvious ways that Mountain Folk and Faeries were alike, in flesh and blood?
A bird’s scream jerked me out of my reverie. Another one pierced the air, followed by two more. Aurek let my hands go and searched the sky. “Hawks? But I thought they flew alone.”
One of the birds sailed by overhead, a massive blur of brown, white, and red feathers heading in the direction of our camp. My heart stopped as more shrieks –birds, horses, and men – rang out nearby. “Not hawks. They’re Norderland falcons. Bhadurak spies.”
What do you think of the excerpts above? Do you think the Draft #2 excerpt is an improvement over the Draft #1 excerpt?
Also, have you ever considered reducing your cast of supporting characters for a story’s sake? How did you handle this? What other drastic changes have you made to your stories in the past?