Kill Your Characters!

“Even fifteen named characters in a full-length novel is pushing it,” my editor warned. But how could I not mention my main character’s spiritual director? Or her favorite uncle? How could I not give them ALL a name?

But once I tried the elimination process, I discovered that many characters blended easily, say, from five individuals into one. Example: In my novel, Perfection, my main character, Maggie, enters a convent in 1960 with twenty-plus young women. It wasn’t possible to give them all space in the novel, though at first I tried. Eventually, I accomplished the task by simple division (5 into 25).

There’s Angela from Memphis who is tight with her family – especially her older brother, a priest – and who has a streak of the rebel in her. There’s Delores from Nashville, who needs constant exercise, finds humor in everything, and believes in writing petitions when the convent rules don’t serve her. Pauline, a high-school classmate of Maggie’s, is quietly thoughtful and wants to be a concert pianist, though she realizes she’ll probably end up teaching seventh-graders. Rosemary, also a high-school classmate of Maggie’s, finds solace in nature and tries not to make waves. And then, there’s Maggie herself, who has come late to the idea of joining the convent, but is hell bent upon giving her all to becoming the most perfect nun she can.

That left me with ten more characters I could give a name (and still stay within the boundary of fifteen named characters). My main character’s family: older sister Marianne (and her husband and two kids, but I cheated there); older brother Jack (and his girlfriend Amy, again cheating); Maggie’s Mom and Dad.  Very important: Stan, Maggie’s high-school sweetheart. (5)

Five to go. Three Mother Superiors. A difficult principal named Sister Corella. Father Mark – a priest friend and mentor. I tried to stop there. I couldn’t, but I’m not sorry about adding four more pivotal characters: Dr. Wickham, a college professor; Sister Audrey, also a college professor; Victor, a Brother of St. Paul; and finally a fellow teacher, Will McBride. All are instrumental in Maggie’s metamorphosis.

Is nineteen named characters too many for a novel? Only if they’re not carefully developed. And here I’m talking about the sacrosanct and not-to-be-violated Character Arc. “Give a character a name,” my editor, Michael Ireland, told me, “and you MUST write that character through the Arc.” Beginning with their first appearance in the novel, readers need to see that each named character is going to be challenged in some way. He or she will rise, fall, rise again, fall again, and eventually reach a conclusion – every character gets its own denouement. 

Observing this rule requires both murder and mayhem. As a new novelist, I found it a high and necessary bar. In my first novel, Perfection, I hope I came close to clearing that bar.  If Dostoyevsky ever knew this rule, he probably didn’t worry about violating it. Maybe that’s why I can’t seem to finish War and Peace.