I mentioned before that while I was in Vermont, I had the first 20 pages of my brand-new shiny WIP workshopped. I didn't mention that I also had one of the grad assistants, a published middle-grade author, take a look at it. She offered me some excellent feedback, particularly because I was able to tell her exactly what I was most concerned about in the piece and ask if this or that was working.
There is one character in my new project that I had particular reservations about. The character is sort of an antagonist to my main character, and I was afraid that by her very nature she would offend and alienate an entire group of people, thus making those readers hate me, my book, and any subsequent book I would publish (dream big, readers!). The GA said that was a possibility and offered a few suggestions for how I could fix that. Then, she said something that kind of blew my mind:
"But I wonder...do you even need this character at all?"
I have stacks of notecards on my end table outlining the plot of this book, giving character descriptions, linking emotional through-lines and explaining how the subplots interconnect. So as I sat in this teacher's lounge, the snow pummeling the ground outside the window, my mind flipped through all those cards, and I could not for the life of me think of one actual reason why I truly needed that character. She had some great one-liners, and she provided a nice thwart to my main character in the first few chapters. But in terms of the big picture, I didn't really need her. I had a few plans for her, but ultimately, the book could stand just fine without her.
Sometimes it's hard to see these things in the first draft. Heck, it's hard to see these things in the second, third, or fourth draft. But it's important to ask yourself, with every single character in your book -- "Does this character NEED to be here? Is he/she essential to the plot?" This is one of the things people are referring to when they say "Kill your darlings." Related to this question, but still just as important: "Could this character's role be fulfilled by another character already on the page?"
We've all read books where there are so many minor characters it's hard to keep them straight. When the author gives each character specific, essential roles and individual character traits, it's not really a problem. Our minds can keep track of these characters because the author has done such an excellent job keeping them apart, giving them their own unique role both in the plot and in the world created within the book (Anna and the French Kiss is a recent example of a book that I think does an excellent job of giving even minor characters important roles and individual characterizations.) But when there are too many unnecessary characters, it's easy for the reader to become frustrated -- particularly if they're having to flip back pages to see who is related to whom (which I've had to do before -- lame!)
On the flip side, there is the danger that if you only show the part of the characters that is essential to the plot, or if the characters only pop up when they're absolutely necessary, the characters will become, to borrow an (admittedly adult) term I learned at VCFA, your "plot bitches," there to serve you and only you, to move your plot forward and nothing else. Characters need to have lives of their own, and if they're popping up conveniently only to serve your plot and retreating into the shadows, waiting to strike again when the plot thickens...well, that's no good either.
As always, writing characters that are essential the plot but still have lives outside of it is a delicate balance.
If only this writing thing were easy.