When to Tell a Character Enough is Enough

I’m a fan of realistic characters, that are capable of taking on a life of their own and steering the story in wild new directions.  Sometimes, I’ve had a character that was meant to by a wallflower show up and make friends with my main character, and the two of them become such best buds that it’s impossible to separate them.

Friends post on upstart characters 800px-Filipino-korean_friends

Friends can be wonderful, and best friends are even better!  Middle grade books take place at a time in a kids life when friends are growing in importance, too, and when kids start getting a bit choosier about who their friends are.  When they’re little, kids will generally play with just about anyone.  As they head into the tween/teen years common interests become more important, as do personality connections, and a similar perspective on life.  Just like a parent can find themselves surprised at their child’s selection in friends, an author can be surprised by a character’s choice!  And that can be a good thing–an indication of character growth.

But sometimes these mushroom characters that pop up out of nowhere and swell before your eyes are, well, rather like finding a toadstool when you were looking for a tangerine.  But if having a manuscript grow in organic ways is a good thing, how do you know the difference between keeper characters, and those that have got to go?  Here are a few rules I apply:

  • If they fill a void in your character’s life, think about keeping them.
  • If they draw your character out, and show him or her off to the reader in ways that grow the story, they might also be a keeper.
  • If they make you story more sympathetic and pull the reader forward, that’s a good thing.

But, if they:

  • Steal the thunder from other important characters, making crucial people redundant, consider getting rid of them.  Or fusing them into the character they’re undermining.
  • If they upstage your character at crucial moments, insisting the spotlight be on them, you might need to trim them down to size.
  • If they mess with not just your outline, but your story core, and send you off the route that will lead your story to a lovely oasis, leaving you and your characters instead to wander in the sizzling desert forever…yeah, that might be a bad thing.

To that end, this week I took the trimmer to one of my characters.  His attempted coup was actually helpful, as it showed me that I needed to bring the entrance of another character up a few chapters.  She needed to step into the void he’d seized.  But, yeah, there was definitely some need for pruning.  I think you’ll see part of why he needed to go when you’ve read the scene with him in it.  Here’s the biggest chunk of what I cut:

                Hours later, Ronin stretched out on the molded shelf, attached to the wall of their cell.  It felt so good to finally have the movement of his hands back!

“I can’t believe I’ve been booked,” Dash moaned.  He wandered around their cell, rubbing his wrists.  “A perfect record, shattered.  My parents are going to be devastated.”

Ronin grinned.  “My Grandma’s going to blow a fuse.”

“So glad you could get some fun out of this,” Dash said, sarcastically.  “You know, I take it back  You don’t attract trouble.  You ARE trouble.  I’ll bet it’s your—your code sign, or something.  When the universe wants to stir things up, create a little chaos, it looks around and sees you sitting there and goes ‘Oh, yeah, there’s trouble.  I’ll just send him in there!’  And the rest of us had better duck and cover.”

Ronin shrugged.  “You didn’t have to come with.  I was fine on my own, and we both know you didn’t break the glass.  Sooner or later the security cameras will show that, too.  So, why are you here?”

Dash pulled a face, and flopped down on the bed across from Ronin’s.  “Thom told me to keep you out of trouble til we had you on the ship.  Isn’t that enough?”

Well, it might not have been, for him, Ronin thought.  He didn’t see any reason to say it out loud, though.

“Sides,” Dash went on.  “You’re still listed as being part of the academy, I’ll bet.  Even if you are listed as a Raider recruit, you’re not on a our student rolls yet.  Tracking you down and getting access to you, by yourself, would have taken Thom days.  With me there, he’ll get in much faster.”

Ronin considered this.  It wasn’t exactly an acknowledgement of his hero status for single-handedly taking on the attacker back there, but it was still pretty decent of Dash.  It would have been easy for him to just step back, let them walk Ronin away.  Dash hadn’t even wanted him to join the Raiders in the first place.

He rolled up on his elbow to tell the other boy, but Dash had fished out a set of wireless ear buds and jacked in.  His foot tapped as he listened to whatever music was playing.

Pulling out his own pair, Ronin did the same.

It’s got a nice little exchange between these two, but it’s a bit flat.  Amusing, maybe, when Dash accuses Ronin of having the code sign of trouble and being a minion of the universe, but otherwise kind of ho hum as the boys squabble and then the scene peters out.  With the right character shifted and pulled up to go in this scene, the energy is much better.  Just as importantly, the story moves forward, with the reader engaged and the plot progressing.

I think that’s the easiest way to tell if I’m using the right character in a scene–is there an undercurrent of energy pushing the story forward?  If yes, woohoo!  If not, maybe time to re-think either the scene or the character’s interacting.

‘Sides, I can use that code-sign trouble bit somewhere else. 😉  What do you think?  Should characters be allowed to grow their story on their own?  Is an upstart character a writer’s curse, or a heaven sent gift?  Tell me in the comments–I want to hear what you think!

For more middle grade spotlights, interviews, giveaways and blog posts, stop by Shannon Messenger’s blog–and have a Marvelous Middle Grade Monday!


7 comments to When to Tell a Character Enough is Enough

  • So true about kids and their changing friends. I saw it with my daughter as she grew up. And sometimes this secondary characters don’t do enough for our story to justify.

  • I’ve written a story that had way too many characters. Took me long time to finally cut many of them out, but the story improved because I did. Thanks for the timely tips.

  • It’s an interesting time to parent, isn’t it, Natalie? And good point on the characters–they have to justify being there.

    Bravo trimming them out, Greg! I always find that a bit painful, but sharing the cuttings here helps. 🙂 Good luck as you press forward!

  • It’s brave of you to show us your writing and even braver to cut out the scene entirely. I recently cut a very long flashback from my WIP when I realized it wasn’t necessary and was bogging down the action. The reader didn’t need to know about the time my two main characters first met. Only I needed to know that!

    As for kids growing up and having different friends: now that both of my boys are in their 20s, the classmates they keep in touch with aren’t the ones I expected (or worried about) them keeping in touch with. They outgrew some of the, uh, wilder influences. And characters in a story can be the same way. I love it when characters take over a story, but you’re right. We can’t simply let them take over. We need to keep a little bit of control.

  • Thank you, Joanne! It can be hard to snip, but I try to think of Michelangelo and his carvings in stone and marble–we’re just pruning away the excess to let the inner character show. 🙂

    And amusing side note about your son’s friends! As the mom of teens, I don’t mind hearing that. 😉

  • What a wonderful post! I agree that sometimes we need to prune and cut. I have cut whole chapters and it can be a little painful (or a lot painful)- but if it makes the story better than it is necessary. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

  • And in the end, it’s what the story needs that matters, yes? Thanks for the sympathy, and for commenting! 😀

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