Monday, June 13, 2011


by Margaret Birth

In my job as a freelance manuscript reader, I once read a 315-page manuscript which contained over 30 characters. What was more amazing to me was that all of them were mentioned by name—even the night doorman and the day doorman in the building where the heroine lived!

Those were way too many characters for what was supposed to be a category romance novel; by the time I was reading this manuscript, romance publishing had moved well beyond the days of 1980s-style lush, sweeping sagas, and into the current age of tighter, more-active stories.

Even if the publisher for which I was reading had published much longer, more-complex stories, the 30+ characters in this particular manuscript still would have been a problem: Because all of their characters were described in depth, all of them were presented as though they were equally important. I couldn’t keep them straight, not even the few who played a major role in the story.

What can you do to make every character count? Here are a few tips:

Don’t give every character a name. You don’t need to name every child in the hero’s household or every employee in the heroine’s place of business. Unless they appear regularly throughout the story and play a major role in the development of the story, you could simply refer to them as “the twins” or “the guys at the auto-body shop.”

Don’t describe every character. Readers will only become confused if you focus on a minor character’s appearance or spend time explaining a minor character’s background or current work or interests or relationships; this makes it appear as though a character is important—but if they’re not…they’re not.

Consolidate characters. If two characters play basically the same role, turn them into a single character. The doormen in this one story are a perfect example of this. The heroine regularly interacts with both doormen, so I wouldn’t suggest omitting both of them; but neither one moves the story along more than the other, and neither one has a more developed personality than the other; so, the two could easily be combined into one.

Cut any unnecessary characters. Ask yourself what role each character in your story plays. Are they hero, heroine, villain or villainess, confidant(e), instigator or helper in the romance or in a mystery/suspense sub-plot? Every character should have a role; every character should help to move the story forward. If a character is nothing more than window dressing—however attractive or witty that window dressing may be—cut that character out of your story.

Our characters should be easy to love—or to hate. That’s one reason we sometimes have trouble being objective about whether or not they truly belong in a particular story. But if you take the time to ask yourself whether this character or that could just as easily be anonymous, or be merged with another character in your story, or even be cut, you’ll end up with all the characters you need—and none that you don’t.♥

Margaret Birth is a Christian writer who has been widely published in short fiction, short nonfiction, and poetry, both in the U.S. and abroad; in addition to working as a freelance writer, she's spent over a decade freelancing for multiple publishers as a manuscript reader, proofreader, and copy editor.

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