Monday, September 9, 2013

The Character Exchange Rate

Have you ever heard the phrase ‘all Asians look alike?’

I am a victim of this stereotype.  Well, maybe I just have a lot of experience getting confused with other people.

Growing up, I had two sisters that were close to me in age.  We were just known as ‘the sisters’ by those who didn’t know us well.  We had similar expressions, mannerisms and habits.  In fact, one of our neighbors told us that if we were all “the same height and width” we could be “twins”.  I guess we blended in so well that he didn’t even realize there were 3 of us!

The 'sisters' as teenagers
One summer, when we spent a week or so at my grandparents’ house, we spent a lot of time with a cousin we rarely saw.  He had a hard time keeping us straight and we didn’t make it any easier for him.  Every time he’d ask us to tell him our names, we’d rotate, never giving the same name twice in a row.  We even got our littlest sister involved, but she couldn’t keep it straight after a while.  It took him years to learn our actual names.

For most of my life, I was one of the exchangeable sisters.  If one couldn’t, the others wouldn’t do.  People would call my mom, asking if one of us could babysit – it didn’t matter which.  We even had boys date two or more of us.

The Sisters as adults - with the little sister as well

In life, having “exchangeable” people is confusing, but in life, it can be downright annoying. 
Have you ever read a book where you wondered why one of the characters exist because they have the same function and personality as another?

I tend to start my stories with large casts.  Sometimes I had almost 50 characters roaming around.  Of course, I could keep them straight, but no one else could.  I was told to cut some of my characters because the story was too cluttered.

I have to say, that was quite a brutal experience, and I spent many an agonizing brainstorming session trying to figure out how.  I knew where the characters needed to be cut, so I started with the obvious.  A daughter who didn’t have a significant role, a man who appeared 2 scenes then never was heard of again.   But then, I had to cut one of my most favorite characters.  I spent drafts expanding her story, getting to know and understand her.  But those scenes weren’t necessary to the story.

Once I cut it down to the absolutely necessary characters, I realized how clear everything was.  I had the chance to expand on characters who had a bigger role later in the story.

So now, as I write, I ask myself – can these characters be interchanged?  Are they even necessary to the story?  And more often than not, I find one or two that have to be cut.