Making sure you have the right characters
If you’re a character-driven storyteller (like I am) then you LOVE characters. You have a bank of them just waiting for a story to be put in, and your stories often come from the characters themselves rather than concepts or ideas. That’s awesome, and generally leads to very engaging characters, but there is also the very real danger of putting too many characters in your story.
People get attached to characters; characters are the way by which your reader experiences the story. So why would it be a bad thing to add as many as you want?
Because, and I cannot stress how important this is, your reader needs to spend time with these characters in order to love them. They need to get to know their personalities through actions and trials and how they handle pain; in order for that to happen, each character needs a certain amount of space in your novel, to be able to shine and show the reader who they are.
So, you have to limit the number of characters you have in your book, in order to make sure you give them the appropriate space for the reader to care about each one of them, and you don’t end up with a 150,000 words novel which spans an afternoon and in which nothing happens, or even a saga of ten 150,000 books filled with so many characters and their subplots that you have no idea how to get back to the main plot anymore without ending up with a veritable skein of loose ends.
So how do I tell if I have too many?
You characters must have a purpose. They must either serve the plot or help build your main character’s personality by their presence, so the very first thing you must ask yourself is “does this character help me define my main character?” “Is this character essential to the advancement of the plot?” If you answered “yes” to one of these questions, follow up by seeing if they do several things or only one small thing. If they do only one small thing, can that thing be given to another character which is more prominent in the story?
Make it into a game
Whenever I’m not sure about a character, I like to play the It’s a Wonderful Life game (yes, I’m a sucker for old movies, and this one is one of my favorites). If you’ve never watched the movie, it’s about a man who, in a moment of despair, comes to believe the world would have been better off if he had never been born, and he is erased from the world just so he can see how it would be different if he had never been there. So if you are unsure (and/or feel so inclined) you can do the same thing with your characters; erase them from existence, as if they had never been there, and see how (if at all) it impacts your story.
Do right by your characters!
It might feel heartbreaking to remove a character from a story, but it shouldn’t. First of all, you never throw anything away, especially a character that you love; you’re only putting them on hold until you find the perfect home for them.
Also, keep in mind that by removing them from a story in which they don’t belong, you are doing your characters a service. After all, if they don’t serve this story, they won’t get to shine, and won’t live up to their potential; don’t you owe it to them to live as fully as they can? To take up all the room they need? Save them until their story comes along. They’ll be much better off!