We’ve looked at trimming out unnecessary bits from our prose but what about those characters who just don’t seem to be pulling their weight? The honest answer is that they’re probably going to have to go too. We all hate doing it, especially if we love the characters, but too many unnecessary characters can be a problem.
Perhaps I should clarify what I mean by unnecessary characters first. I don’t mean if you happen to mention an unnamed barkeeper passing your protagonist a drink. In such a context the extra character can add depth to the world simply by existing. By which I mean the barkeeper passing the protagonist a drink places the protagonist in a world populated by other people. We can even tell the reader something about the character with a line of description; perhaps our protagonist checks them out and particularly admires something about them, or perhaps they notice the tan line where a wedding ring used to be, or perhaps the barkeeper chastises them for smoking where they shouldn’t. These are moments that can enhance the world and give it a little realism.
Problems arise when the barkeeper begins to muscle in on the story in a way that doesn’t advance the plot and simply takes up space. For instance we may wax lyrical about this character’s workout routine and what shapely muscles they have or we may go on a long side trip telling the reader how the barkeeper is working the way through university or delve into the character’s history about how they love their job and what first drew them to it. This is alright in a first draft, particularly if you’re thinking about the character actually taking part in the story, but when it comes to editing we have to ask if knowing this character advances the story. If not than our barkeeper might have be cut or at least cut down to just being the barkeeper.
This might also have to happen to characters who at first appear to take part in the story but on consideration don’t. A conspicuous one might be detectives in crime fiction. This is an instance where we know that in real life detectives and police officers work as teams and yet in crime fiction while there may be references to other detectives often we only really see the protagonist and their sidekick, or sometimes a small collection of sidekicks. A simple reason for this is that information can be passed to the protagonist through the sidekick which allows a relationship to form between the two characters. It also helps focus the narrative by cutting out extraneous characters who might otherwise serve no purpose other than to relay information. In such a situation having too many characters walking into a scene, handing out information and then leaving again can lead to the reader wondering why our sidekick didn’t simply say it.
Cutting extra characters can also cut down on unnecessary scenes. A simple way to show this might be to consider a character taking a sick day. Do we need a scene where the protagonist takes a call from another character saying they won’t be in to work? To do this we’d have to set up a situation in which the protagonist is, for instance, in their office, gets the call and in doing so has to exchange a few lines of dialogue with this other character. Ii something else is revealed in the situation that is relevant to the story then this may work. However, if the scene is purely to explain the absence of a character later is it necessary? Could this information be gleaned if in the middle of a scene where the narrative is moving forward the protagonist asks where the ill character is and the sidekick says they’re off in? Setting up a scene just to convey this information might add several pages, perhaps even a chapter depending on your chapter length. If we cut it down to an off-hand remark it might take a couple of lines.
Cutting excess character often shaves unnecessary verbiage from our stories which can either be used to shorten a story or can be spent elsewhere building character or plot without leading to the story becoming overlong. It can also save on confusion because there are fewer characters appearing and performing the same function with little chance to develop or individualise them. The key to deciding this can be as simple as asking if you need this information. Unfortunately I can’t answer this for you because only you know what story you’re trying to write.