Monday, 31 August 2015

No Place For Bystanders

Anyone who's read any of my books on business skills for writers, or sat in one of my workshops at Swanwick, knows I am a strong devotee of the spreadsheet. Great for setting up simple accounts systems, wonderful for a quick and easy to-do list, and invaluable for planning the latest writing project. Well, this week, I've been using it for viewing and weeding out unnecessary characters in my novel.

When I was in the middle of writing Gorgito's Ice Rink, I did a count up and found I had over 130 named characters. I used a spreadsheet to review the importance of each one, identified a couple with relatively minor roles, merged them into a much stronger single person and Emma's partner, Vasily, was born. I also eliminated several meaningless characters. And now I'm using the same tool again; so I thought I'd share it with you.

Any tool I use tends to feature either colour or numbers; this one has both! Here's how to use it:

  • number the columns with the chapter headings; list each character down the rows. Go through each chapter and identify who is an active, speaking participant (green); a passive, silent presence (yellow) or absent but mentioned (red).
  • Number each green square as 3, the yellows as 2 and the reds as 3.
  • Add the total across the rows, i.e. for each character.
  • Sort the characters according to their scores, largest at the top.
This is the finished chart and the conclusions I was able to draw from this exercise were fascinating:

  • The two main protagonists were at the top of the list, followed by the other five major characters. This was a reassuring start.
  • A character that made a key appearance in chapter 1 was way down the overall list and obviously needs to be written up or written out.
  • There were several named characters at the bottom of the list that scored just 1, meaning they were mentioned once, but didn't actually appear in any of the chapters. Most of these can be removed or merged.
The title of this post comes from a very useful article on characters by Anirban S Bose. The full quote is: Characters must serve a purpose, they must do something to the story. Fiction has no place for bystanders.

I believe using this tool at this stage in the process - after the completion of the first draft - can help me tighten the story by eliminating the bystanders. Feel free to play around with it - and do let me know how you get on.


  1. I think this is a great idea. I'm going to try it. I'm sure it will results in characters being assassinated. Thanks for the idea.

    1. You are welcome, Lindsay. do come back and let us know how it goes. Ex