Few people think of me as an expert in anything. Well, booze, yes, I suppose there’s that. But in general I am regarded in social settings as a mildly alarming Wild Card (or, more accurately, I go around demanding that everyone call me by the nickname “Wild Card” so I can use my self-made catchphrase, “I have to be dealt with! BECAUSE I’M A WILD CARD, BABY!”)
Maybe I’m an expert in novel writing, as I have published nine of them. Though technically that makes me an expert in selling novels, not necessarily writing them. Which leads me, with the drunken grace of a shore leave sailor, to my point.
There is a rule in fiction writing called the Law of Conservation of Characters. Is there? I may have made that up. Actually, after Googling it’s something Roger Ebert said about movies, but it still applies. It has to, or this blog post is a waste of everyone’s time.
Basically, what this boils down to is the idea that an author doesn’t waste time on characters who have no purpose in a story, so if you’re, say, trying to figure out who the killer is in a mystery novel you know it has to be a character you’ve spent some time with – and any character who so far hasn’t had much reason to be there is the most likely suspect.
There’s a flip side to this rule that doesn’t get talked about much, and that’s because it’s a rule you should apply while writing the damn story in the first place. This is the Rule of Character Attrition, and it might be a Somers-Only Rule, who knows, but it goes like this: If you’re struggling in your novel, consider cutting characters out and combining their role and attributes into another character. It’s often a tonic for an ailing novel, in my experience.
For example, I’ve got a WIP. As is my wont, I started this book off by throwing everything I could think of – exposition everywhere like a slow flood of molasses, details that just drop like anvils here and there just so I wouldn’t forget them later – and every character I could think of that might be useful. I do this. If I think there might be a scene later that would benefit from a unicorn, I will create a unicorn character.
End result? My protagonist has a very large posse of people following him around, and the story gets bogged down. And then I realize that character #5 hasn’t said or done anything in 50 pages.
That’s when it’s time for a culling.
I start over. I boil down my characters: Who can be combined? Who is unlikely to ever get a Big Moment or a reason to exist? Who have I completely forgotten was even in this book? Burn them off, and what you’re left with are the characters that actually matter.
It really just goes to show that we novelists really have no idea what we’re doing. We just make it up as we go along. It’s actually kind of surprising that any of us manage to feed and clothe ourselves – and yes, I know that in my case the definition of “clothe” is very loose. DAMN YOUR EYES.