I have a confession: As I work on the draft of my next book, I’m finding there’s just too many characters. I love them all, don’t get me wrong, but the last thing I want is a reader who has to make a set of crib notes to keep track of all the people who jump in and out of the story. Many in this cast are bit players – they come in, move the plot along, then exit, never to be seen again. So how do I thin down the cast?
One way is to combine similar characters into one persona. This happens a lot when books are converted to movies, and can be a very effective way of keeping the plot elements, and even character traits, but streamline the story. A very recent example of combining characters can be found in the screen adaptation of the book, Water for Elephants. I’ve seen the movie, read the book (loved it), and am now a even bigger fan of the movie. No, the movie is not identical, but it’s very true to the book. But two prominent characters in the book became one in the movie – in what I think was a stroke of genius.
Water for Elephants is primarily a story about a train circus in 1931. There’s danger, love, betrayal, and one fantastic elephant named Rosie. In the book, the main character, Jacob, jumps a circus train and becomes their vet, and eventually their elephant handler. The circus is run by two powerful and evil men, August and Uncle Al. Jacob falls for August’s wife, Marlena, but you’ll have to either read the book or see the movie to hear that part of the story. It’s August and Uncle Al I want to talk about.
In the book, Uncle Al owns the circus and has a habit of throwing men off his moving train who cross him or are unproductive. His solitary motivation is the dollar. His role is important, but he’s a relatively minor character. August, on the other, is key to the story, the violent, schizophrenic equestrian director. One second he’s kind, the next vicious. Jacob encounters both throughout the book, but it’s August’s wife Jacob falls for.
Now, to the movie. In the movie, there is no Uncle Al (or I didn’t notice him, if he was there). August is both the psychopath and the owner – which blends into a character even more frightening than the two in the book. Is it the same? No. But it is extremely effective, and wow does it convey how dangerous a world Jacob has entered.
So back to my conundrum. Seeing how well the combining was done in Water for Elephants gives me hope that I can thin down my cast a little but keep all the key elements I need in the story. In some cases, it doesn’t matter quite so much who threatens the protagonist, just that they are threatened. I hope to take this to heart, and tighten up my story a bit more.
Readers: If you’ve seen the movie, what do you think? Do you agree that the movie August is as good as the August/Uncle Al in the book? Or did combining those characters compromise the story?
Writers: Have you had to combine characters before? How difficult was it? Were you happy with the results?
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