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How to Determine if a Side Character Stay or Goes

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Addison, Mar 31, 2016.

  1. Addison

    Addison Auror

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    I've been reviewing some of my story ideas, those still in the "concept" stage and those who are a draft. Some of them have side characters that I was able to combine. Others I can't, especially one.

    The character's name is Chimi. He's a side character who comes into play about a third into the story. I've combined some other characters, thus decluttering the story and making a deeper character. But this cute little guy doesn't really give anything to the story. But seriously who doesn't want to see a story where there's a pet dragon? Chimi is that pet.

    I looked at stories and movies and such to get a good look at side characters. Some have side characters who act as a cute factor, with their plot help coming to light every now and then or not until the end. Like Leigh in "Bliss". Others have zero plot help but are still enjoyed. Like Miko in "Pocahontas".

    I'm putting my foot down to keep Chimi, but it really got me thinking how a writer determines which characters stay and go and what purpose each character serves. Being levity in a thriller is a purpose, it gives readers a chance to breathe. Characters can do more than serve the plot conflicts, they can serve the story tone as well.

    It took me a big headache to determine if this one character stays. How do you guys determine your character play list?
     
  2. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    A sharp hatchet. Pet dragons taste like chicken.

    Comedy relief is valid, in particular in various target audiences. Personally I have no real criteria except if it works for me. Most of my character cuts are because a storyline changes or just becomes unnecessary. A woman early on in my book is about to get the hatchet, her role just disappeared. Yes, I could leave her bit part, but she'd just be a filler extra.
     
    Last edited: Mar 31, 2016
  3. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I think the animal companion is a big thing in movies because they add so much to the visuals. If you're using a pet dragon that adds nothing to the plot, you better make sure it pays off in cuddles. The thing is, though, that it's a high-skill payoff. It's easy in film, but it's harder when you just have words. It's one of those things that all comes down to your ability to make the language work. Can you get your pet dragon to evoke the right emotions at the right time or does it feel extraneous?

    That is, either you're good enough to handle the language challenge that the pet dragon needs to work, or you should cut it.
     
    Last edited: Mar 31, 2016
  4. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    If I'm not sure, first thing I do is take them out behind the shed and tie them up. Then I see how the house feels with out them inside.

    If the house feels empty, I bring them back in.

    If the house feels airy, like a great weight as been removed, I load the shotgun and dig a grave next to ol' yeller.
     
  5. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I shove them out the door, take in the bowl of milk and turn out the light.

    If they're back the next day, I run them out again. If I keep doing this, but they keep coming back, then I figure they belong in the story and I just haven't been perceptive enough to see where. Every once in a while, it's my critiquers who will say they like character X because of ... this or that. Something I didn't see.

    IOW, and without metaphors (I never met a phor I didn't like), I try to cut the character out. If I'm successful, then I succeeded. But if I just can't do it, then I try to come up with a story role (not an author reason!) for them.
     
  6. Devouring Wolf

    Devouring Wolf Troubadour

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    This is an especially difficult challenge for me, since I've been working on the same story for years, and I've grown really attached to characters who no longer serve any purpose.

    What I do is I ask myself what does this character do in the story? Can someone else do it? If the answer is yes, those characters either have to merge together (which usually doesn't happen because my characters tend to be very distinct) or one of them has to go.

    How do I decide which one goes? I consider which ones more adaptable to other stories/ would make a stronger MC for their own spin off or something because I never get rid of anything be it plots, characters, or particularly poetic passages. I hoard and adapt them.
     
  7. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

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    In my story there are three brothers who are studying sorcery. The middle brother accidentally turned the youngest into a dog. The dog follows them around but is usually there for occasional comic relief during breaks between the more tense parts of the story.
     
  8. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    I really don't understand why so much advice tells writers to cut down side characters as much as possible. I think it's misguided. My observations lead me to believe that having a good sized cast of interesting and diverse characters will make it more likely that readers will relate to and/or get attached to one or more of them. More characters for readers to get attached to leads to more fans, more fans leads to more success.

    This is one thing that ASoIaF really got right from the beginning. Book 1 presents a large cast of many different types of characters with varied points of view. Each of them has their share of fans. The number one reason people give for loving ASoIaF is "the characters" because the large and diverse cast gives so many opportunities for readers to immerse themselves in different viewpoints. Not only are there plenty of characters to love, there are also plenty of characters to hate. Some people love Jaime. Some people hate Jaime but love Jon. Danaerys and Arya both have their rabid fans. Most everyone loves Tyrion, and most everyone hates Joffrey, etc. Now imagine if you could only pick one character to focus the whole saga on. I'm not even a fan of the books and even I know that would be a terrible idea.

    The more characters you have the more opportunities you are giving readers to become invested in the story. Don't cut down characters just because you think you're supposed to. Only do it when the character is really not working in the story.
     
    Miskatonic likes this.
  9. AJ Stevens

    AJ Stevens Minstrel

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    I believe side characters make or break a story, particularly in the case of fantasy. Remember that you're often building a world with its own history, geography, and other nuances. It needs depth and diversity, and side characters are a fantastic way of doing this.

    That's not to say that they should be in there just for the sake of it, but I think they often make an excellent foil for main characters. Many side characters I've encountered that are successful offer a counterbalance to the main character they are associated with. The classic straight man/funny man dynamic. Good cop/bad cop. It's a tried and tested formula that breaks up the monotony of a particular point of view.

    In short, don't throw them away purely because they don't advance the plot, or use rules like 'if I remove this character, would the story be any different?' They bring value in other ways, in my opinion.

    I have a large cast of characters that dip in and out of the story. Rather than worrying about whether I can get rid of them, I'll read back a POV section, and think 'that's a bit grim/boring; can I bring someone else into the scene to mix things up and make it more interesting?'

    I believe the key to doing this well is possessing the ability to make the reader care about a minor character in a short space of time, with as few words as possible. Which is really, really hard.
     
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  10. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    I agree with the lots of characters notion... I probably wouldn't cut a pet dragon unless for some reason it's not working. The main reason I find for cutting a character is that if I leave them in, they're going to spin into a subplot that just doesn't look like I have the words and space to address in a single novel. Too many characters is an issue until you or your writing is a franchise... but even then, look out, lots of characters is a bit like like lots of real people, things tend to get crowded in a finite space.

    GRRM had the advantage of this not being his first novel, but it's also arguable he's gone off the deep end there too. There is a reason he's getting novels done slower -- they're getting monstrous long trying to contain all the POV's, and it will inevitably make a "satisfying" ending more difficult because of all the loose ends readers will bicker about.
     
  11. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

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    I think it's safe to say that HBO will wrap up GOT before GRRM finishes his series, if indeed he ever does. But GRRM and his work ethic is a completely different topic.

    Sometimes side characters end up becoming more popular than one might expect because they compliment the main character and bring out certain aspects of their personality that might be kept hidden otherwise. If there were no characters that the MC could joke around with and show the more light-hearted side of their personality then the readers wouldn't know that the MC was capable of that. If the MC comes off as being cold and distant and preferring solitude rather than human companionship, a scene where they are able to open up and smile and laugh a little gives them a little more depth of personality.
     
    Addison likes this.
  12. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    Hmmm... I'm not sure that this is true. I mean, not universally true. I'm sure that for many writers and many readers depth IS more important than breadth. But I am also sure that there are many writers and readers who enjoy breadth more than depth. I don't think either is inherently better than the other. It simply depends on your own tastes and also the needs of the story.

    Also, I think it's a false dilemma. There's simply no reason (theoretically) that you can't have both.
     
  13. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    Hmmm...if the standard advice is to cut down on the side characters, then I could be in a world of trouble.

    'Empire: Country,' the novella I have been attempting to edit the past six weeks or so (and shall return to again once NaNo is done) features scads of minor characters. They are introduced in the first half...and get slaughtered enmass in the second.

    'Empire: Capital,' the next novella in the series, takes place in an intrigue laden imperial court. Again, lots of characters, most with far more clout than the MC's, each working an angle that affects what the MC's can do.

    'Empire: Estate' and 'Empire: Metropolis' continue the trend.
     
  14. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Whatever works, works, that's probably the only real rule of writing, and it's open to interpretation, heh heh.
     
  15. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

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    Isn't reality just an absolute buzzkill? :)
     
  16. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Finally, an explanation for all the dead bees!

     
  17. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    What's the saying? Never let facts get in the way of a good story.

    A quote from the movie Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

    Ransom Stoddard: You're not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?
    Maxwell Scott: No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
     
  18. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

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    If we all just went with the obvious answer then there would be no need for a writer's forum. :D
     
  19. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    chocolatecovered babyseals!!!!!
     
  20. Helen

    Helen Inkling

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    I go with the change theory. The minimum number of characters to effect and support the change. That gives me a hierarchy and tells me which roles are crucial and which can be swapped or taken out.
     
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