(Good) Reasons for Combining Characters

And, no, combining characters so you can finish up sooner with the Secondary Characters exercise in Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, does not count as a good reason.

Still…that’s when I ended up doing it.

I’ve been working for a while now on the Secondary Characters exercise in the workbook. Maass only requires that you do the exercise for a couple of characters, but I’ve been pushing myself to do it for all of them–all the ones I know at this point, anyway. And I was down to what I thought was the last one–a resident of Hull-House that, up till now, has been only that–a resident. Not anyone with a distinct personality or goal, just someone who linked my MC to the settlement house and popped up whenever I needed someone to do a Hull-House function. In fact, this character has been sort of multiple-personality up till now, because I hadn’t focused in on her yet as one person. Coherence? Continuity? Not so much.

As I started working on her exercise, I realized I was possibly getting her mixed up with another character–a visiting nurse. Who, no, I hadn’t done the exercise for yet, because I forgot about her. Or was thinking about her as a very minor character. As I started to think about the primary trait for the resident, I said to myself, “Self, you can’t use that trait. That’s the trait of the nurse.”

Unless…

What if the visiting nurse is the resident. Of course, this took me off on some all-too fascinating research about connections between the Visiting Nurse program in Chicago, started–yes–by Hull-House and Jane Addams (seriously, what wasn’t started by those people?!), and about the nurse who did live there for a while, and the visiting nurse who didn’t live there but had a station at Hull-House from which she managed operations, and Dr. Harriet Rice, one of the first black women doctors, who lived at Hull-House for a while…and on and on and on.  Good times.

Did I find a concrete, absolutely 100% certain answer. No. Did I find enough to tell me that I can take the idea of a visiting nurse as a resident as a possibility, a likelihood, that I can write into the story. Which means, yes, I can combine the two characters?

But should I?

I’m thinking yes. Why? What are the good reasons?

  • One less storyline/arc to develop and, more importantly, to weave through the story. Which means one less path to weave into my MC’s story, and one less path for my readers to have to keep track of.
  • Giving this one character the qualities I was going to distribute among two means, I think, more layers and depth for one person, rather than two characters who would be uninteresting, flat.
  • Crowding up a character’s life makes things more busy, more complicated. For this story in particular, that’s a good thing–because everyone involved in Hull-House did have a busy, complicated life. If she’s got so much to do that she’s running around like the proverbial headless chicken, well…that’s realism. And, hopefully, engaging.

What about you? Have you got a couple of characters who are thin on the page? W ho don’t have enough to do, who only show up once and haven’t told you when they want to show up again? Is it possible for you to combine then? What will it add to your story, even as it takes away one of the bodies on the stage, one of those names you sweated over? Good idea or bad?

Here’s to writing progress, however it comes!

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8 thoughts on “(Good) Reasons for Combining Characters

  1. I did this with my work in progress (the Williamsburg story). I combined a few patients. I needed to flesh characters out more. I needed follow through and simplifying. I wanted to make things less confusing.I think it’s worked well for me.

    By the way, I am sorry to hear that Hull House is closing as a social service organization. Such a loss!

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    • beckylevine says:

      Joyce, I like your reasons–I’m guessing they did work. I can totally see it with patients. And I sure felt like there was just the right character balance in the hospital scenes in BLUE.

      Yeah, it stinks re Hull-House. Both historically and social-service-wise, the latter the worst part.

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  2. Jenn Hubbard says:

    I actually did combine characters in The Secret Year–some of Colt’s friends. There are three guys he hangs around with, who are minor characters (Nick, Paul, and Fred). There used to be four of them (Tony was the fourth). At my editor’s suggestion, I removed Tony and gave his few lines to the other guys, and never missed him. He wasn’t doing anything to serve the story that the other guys weren’t already doing.

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    • beckylevine says:

      I think we start out with an idea, and it just buries itself in the book and we don’t see it. Kind of like those remodeling plans we have for our homes!

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  3. I ended up doing this also–very spontaneously. I got rid of one of my protagonist’s sister and ladled her desires and ambitions into my mc. I figured what the heck, it would make for one more complicated character!!

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