Sometimes writers intentionally want to create big worlds, so they go out of their way to write a huge cast. If you’re like me, you might’ve unintentionally done so. During the revision process, I discovered that I had named too many minor characters. Many of these characters never return.
So, what’s wrong with naming the gardener, that cute guy at the restaurant that walks by, the waiter, the MC’s second cousin’s best friend, the Uber driver, etc.? Many readers don’t have the patience, mental headspace, or bandwidth to handle ongoing Covid-stuff, work, kids, family drama, everyday stressors, and remember every single name in a manuscript, unless they’re gifted with eidetic or photographic memory.
Y’all…we’re in the age of texting and skim reading. No joke. The age of sitting down to read the newspaper (hard copy) is nearly extinct. In fact, I do a double-take when I see 1.) someone purchase an actual newspaper and 2.) read it word for word, cover-to-cover.
So, how come you can’t have a giant world? Well…you can. Certain genres tend to be massive. Sci-Fi and fantasy genres are much more likely to have a long page count and tons of characters. But, if you’re an unpublished debut author like myself trying to break into the world of traditional publishing, trying to outdo Game of Thrones in terms of character count isn’t always the best approach.
I’m not saying large casts can’t be done. There are so many examples of books out there with lots of characters and a huge word count. But I’ve found, based on beta reader feedback, it’s much easier for them to focus on your story when they don’t have to remember every single character under the sun. Especially the ones that aren’t important.
When To Not Name Characters
- Not Important: When the character doesn’t add to the story or is someone unimportant, and therefore the reader doesn’t need to remember the person.
- The Setting: If he or she plays a minor role and is more a part of the setting versus being a major player, who will be providing a clue to a mystery that needs to be solved.
- One & Done: If the character only shows up once and doesn’t return, in most cases said character doesn’t require a name.
If you’ve got too many minor characters and you’ve inadvertently named them all, from the mail main to the dog walker, then you’ve got to decide if they all need to be in the story. If some of them serve a purpose to further the plot, build character, or add to some mystery and can stand to go nameless, then that’s the best option. Does the reader absolutely need to know Mary Jane Smith, the dog walker, or can she simply be referred to as…the dog walker? It’s the same with word count. The reader needs to be convinced that every single character – minor or major and every single word is necessary. If it’s not, then it’s time to press the delete button and cut.
The Bottom Line
During the editing phase, don’t be afraid to evaluate your manuscript and cut excess characters along with word count. If minor characters are needed that aren’t going to be returning or further the plot, try to have them go nameless. I’ve had to do this during the revision process lately. Too many characters to keep track of can sometimes convolute the story and cause more confusion. We want our readers to have an enjoyable experience and not one where they’re either pulled out of the story or, worse yet, they stop reading altogether. As aspiring authors, we’re always learning, growing, and trying to get better at our crafts. Hopefully, we’re keeping our audience in mind as we do so.