First round edits, part 4: Combining and cutting characters

For those of you who don't know, I'm in the middle of first-round edits for The House of a Thousand Dolls, and I'm blogging about the process. Feel free to chime in with questions, suggestions or general awesomeness.

As I said last week, one of the things my editor encouraged me to do was trim a lot of the good ideas that I had stuffed into my book. That way the ideas that remained could be stronger and better developed. Nowhere was that more necessary--or more difficult--than when it came to my characters.

Step 4: Combining and Cutting Characters.

There are few things in life that frustrate a writer more than being told there are too many characters in her book. In my head every person in my book was a fully developed individual, and they were all wildly different from one another.  There was no way I could combine them.

(Notice I said that's the way it was in my head. Turns out, that wasn't the way it was playing out in my story. The distance between what the writer is trying to write and what actually happens on the page is almost inevitable.)

As much as I didn't want to admit it, it only took a few reads of Sarah's letter to realize that she was right. My abundance of characters was not only confusing, it slowed down the story. But who should stay and who should go?

To answer that, I made a list.

Actually, I made a lot of lists. First I listed every character in the book, no matter how minor.  Then I grouped them by different categories, depending on what they did in the book.  People inside the city, people outside the city, suspects, victims, etc.

Then I made a safe list and started figuring out which characters were necessary. I had several criteria

1. My main character was safe, of course, as were her potential love interests.

2. I kept as many suspects as possible, since one of the things I had to do later was amp up the mystery.

3. I used the rule of three a lot. For example, my victim list had four people on it. By cutting it back to three, I increased the emotional impact, and improved the rhythm of the story. The same went for my main character's closest friends. Originally there were three characters who served as her "family", but by cutting one of them, I created a triangle with my character and the other two. That made the interrelationships much easier to explore.

By listing out every character, and sorting them, I was able to figure out which characters I wanted to combine, which to cut, and which to leave alone.

Then I went through my manuscript and started hacking.  I ended up with a lot of rough bits and loose ends, but I knew I was going to go back and smooth it out later, so that was okay. And when the dust finally settled, I had gotten rid of six characters.

And added one. *cough* But hey, five isn't bad, right?

Have you ever had to trim your cast of characters? How do you go about it?

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Fabric art in the header by Carol Riggs.