Editing: A Cast of Thousands

crowd  In the editing work I do, I am struck by how often different authors make the exact same mistakes. So I’m going to start blogging about these errors–partly to remind myself and partly to warn other writers.

One mistake I see all the time is the “Cast of Thousands”–the sheer overwhelming number of characters. Here’s an example from my latest editing job (names changed to protect the guilty). In this science fiction novel, the villain had an army of troops. In one chapter, all of the following minor characters had speaking parts of a sentence or two:

Neka, Ludacris, Asastar, Zuri, Sebastian, Killian, Talnam, Douglas, and Dougan

I had to keep a running list to remember them all, but it turned out to be just a distraction because the characters never appeared in the novel again. They were never properly introduced to the reader, and they were never developed into important characters. Just “wham, bang, thank you, ma’am” appearances and on to the next.

In that same novel, the heroine had not one, but TWO teachers: the brothers Bradley and Kevin Whitefield.

She had not one, but TWO best friends: Tiffany and Kathie.

Sure, it’s good to have minor characters in a novel, but what’s wrong with too many characters? First, it makes it impossible to keep track of what’s happening. It distracts from the plot. But the second and bigger problem: in focusing on minor walk-on characters, little room is left for focusing on/developing the main characters, their thoughts, and their emotions. Thus, the book feels “horizontal” and shallow, rather than “vertical” and deep. Know what I mean?

Why do authors do this so often? I think they’re trying to make the book “bigger” by adding more characters, but the result is just the opposite.

How to fix this problem? Cut the minor characters and focus on the main ones. Another way is to combine two minor characters into one. Couldn’t the heroine have just one teacher with the lessons of the two combined into one stronger character?

Trust me, the novel will be better for focusing and developing the main characters and cutting/combining the unimportant ones.


2 thoughts on “Editing: A Cast of Thousands

  1. And here I was thinking it was hard enough to have three characters speaking at once. Imagine a conversation between ten people…confusing much?

    I hope the person who wrote the novel you’re complaining about doesn’t figure out you’re talking about him, though :S. It would be bad if you got yourself in trouble!

    Thanks for this post, by the way. It’s a good example of why less is more. I’ll put it up on my Twitter account.


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