One of the things I’d recommend before getting into the actual revision of a writing project is to take a step back and look at the character balance.
To discuss this topic I’ll be using my second novel The Rebel Queen and examining how regularly each character gets a point-of-view turn. (To do this I’m using an Excel workbook that I intend on making available soon).
Does a character rarely get a point-of-view?
Every time there’s a new viewpoint the reader needs to create a little box in their memory to store the character’s personality, opinion and experiences. The reader can only keep track of a small number of boxes, so adding too many is problematic. (Sidebar: George RR Martin is famous for his huge cast of characters, but I think I was halfway through the first book before I could differentiate properly between characters. Occasionally throughout the series I also read scenes not remembering who this particular character was).
Minor characters clog up your reader’s memory and are also likely to be under-developed, crude caricatures of what a character should be. Sometimes a minor character is legitimately required; that’s the only time they should be used.
If a character only has a small number of viewpoints my first preference will be to eliminate them as a point-of-view character. I’ll ask myself:
- What is their viewpoint providing?
- Are those outcomes critical?
- Can another character or a change in circumstances deliver the same outcomes?
In The Rebel Queen the worst two offenders are clear. Den-ta, who gets a single scene in the final chapters of the book is definitely going to be cut. The Prior, who is an important plot aspect is a little harder to determine. I’ll try to cut him first, but if that doesn’t work I’ll resurrect him and pad him out.
However, if the character’s viewpoint is irreplaceable and necessary then I’ll be looking for ways to give them more “air time”. If I can’t kill ’em, I’ll try to make them stronger. Can they be involved in more scenes? Can they replace another character’s viewpoint on some scenes?
I’ll be looking for a few more scenes for the character Cal; trying to raise her prominence.
Are there characters who get introduced too late?
My current rule of thumb is that I don’t want to introduce any new character viewpoints after halfway through the story. By that point everything should be moving towards resolution, not continuing to expand. (Sidebar: Interesting question: Does that hold true in a series? I think so. I prefer the method Robert Jordan uses, taking a minor character who doesn’t have a viewpoint until a later book). Introducing a character towards the end of the story also risks them being a deus ex machina (“person or event which provides a sudden, unexpected solution to a story”).
In George RR Martin’s A Dance with Dragons poor old Uncle Kevan waited approximately 900 pages for a viewpoint, and dies at the end of the scene. As a reader, it felt like a completely unnecessary death; almost like Martin realised he hadn’t killed anyone recently, so someone had to die. The problem was, I didn’t know who Kevan was, so I didn’t care at all that he died.
Returning to The Rebel Queen, even though General Pkar is a significant character in the story, I discover that he doesn’t get a point of view until too late. I’ll be looking to give him a scene or two earlier in the story, so the reader know he’s important.
Are there characters who go silent?
This aspect is more complex to work out (and it seems, to describe too). I’m looking at the gaps between points of view, when combined with plot developments. In the image above General Pkar goes silent for 4 chapters (15-18) but in this instance that is okay – the plot-action is happening elsewhere.
But if there was a plot thread that General Pkar was chasing down and he inexplicably went silent for multiple chapters, that might be a problem.
Note however that they don’t necessarily need a point-of-view; it might be enough to have them mentioned by another character, so that we know they are still around.