Every now and again, I look at a character and think, “Is he doing enough or should I cut him?” For the most part this revolves around whether the character moves the plot forward in some way. Is this character’s contribution meager? Than I look at whether or not I can combine this character’s role with another character. This is especially true of parents or siblings in a story. Are two characters essential to get this job done? If not, adios my character. Perhaps I’ll see you in another story.
Then I saw a post by Stephanie Morrill about cutting characters. Her rubric is very different. To stay in the story, the character must:
Help the main character on their journey. This is a lot like my “move the story forward.” But for Morrill and her characters this is only the beginning.
Have a life of their own. This character cannot be a satellite of the main character. They must have their own problems. Ooooo, I thought, perhaps these problems put them in conflict with the main character.
Come into conflict with the main character. That’s right. At some point, each and every character needs to conflict with the main character. Otherwise the story is most likely to simple and straightforward, without enough tension. And in real life, people really do come into conflict with friends and family members.
In a story for younger readers, this conflict doesn’t have to be huge. In Jasmine Toguchi: Mochi Queen, an early middle grade series, her older sister always tells Jasmine she is too young. Her cousin teases her. In a young adult novel, this wouldn’t be enough but for an early middle grade novel it works.
So what do you do if your characters don’t accomplish these things? You can still cut or combine characters. Or you can make them more complex. The choice will depend on you and your story.