Coming up with character names, traits, and backgrounds is pretty much my favorite stage of brainstorming a new book. So I tend to go overboard. We’re talking pages upon pages of backstory for the antagonist’s dead mother or the main character’s librarian (who’s only in two scenes). And when I finally start writing the first draft, I’m so excited about introducing them to the reader that I kind of toss them all in at once.
Character soup isn’t just a problem in middle grade books. I love adult thrillers, for example. But when I’m hit with a ton of names in the first chapter or two, it’s frustrating – particularly because the plots tend to be twisty-turny enough without trying to remember that Roger is the P.I. and Rick is the Chief of Police.
A thick soup slows down your reading. When you introduce a bunch of characters at once, the reader often has to jump back a few sentences to remind herself who’s the class clown and who’s the bully. But that’s not to say that middle grade stories can’t have a cast of characters as large as any Clive Cussler novel. It’s just a matter of when and how you introduce them. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you out if you suspect your character soup needs thinning:
- Isolate the soupy scene. Is it at school, when the main character first shows up to math class or sits down at the lunch table? Maybe it’s when she explores her new apartment building, or village, or the kingdom she found in her wardrobe. If you’re doing revisions on paper, highlight the names of every character the first time they appear. Which page has the most highlights?
- What’s going on in that scene? Does it contain the catalyst – the event or decision that sets the main character with the question/task/quest that marks the start of this particular story in his life? Is it mid-story, where the plot is starting to lag? Is it just a scene that seems to exist for the sole purpose of introducing characters?
- Why are there so many characters in this scene? This can be a tough question to answer. In my personal experience, I’ve found the answer tends to be: Because the scene was boring otherwise. I was just introducing characters to the reader that would play important roles in the story later.
- Figure out what that scene’s true purpose is. And it can’t be “introduce the gang.” How does this scene affect the main character’s journey/the plot of the story?
- Who really needs to be there? Really? Depending on what stage of revision you’re in, this might be a good opportunity to nix some characters altogether, or combine two characters into one. Be honest about your darlings and decide which ones are truly needed to tell this story, and who you can save for another tale.
- Do a scene-by-scene analysis, character by character. What I mean is, choose one character and write down what her purpose is in every scene in which she appears. If she doesn’t have a purpose in a certain scene, well…you know what to do.
A final tip: beta readers are invaluable when it comes to character soup. Heck, they’re just invaluable. You know your characters, but your readers don’t. If you don’t have time for a full manuscript critique, at least give Step 1 a shot, then have a trusted beta reader take a look at your soup scene to let you know if he had a hard time keeping track of who’s who.