Combining Characters

Cover of "Water for Elephants: A Novel"

Cover of Water for Elephants: A Novel

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.Β  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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7 responses to “Combining Characters

  1. Jenn

    Rosie stole every scene she was is for me. That elephant was so beautiful and so elegant, you couldn’t take your eyes off of her.

  2. Robin DeJarnett

    Very true – Rosie stole a lot of the show, and I loved her. And you’re right about seeing Jacob’s interaction with other people and animals. Definitely different, but wow – visually well done, I think. Rosie in the movie was one of my favorite parts. πŸ™‚

  3. Jenn

    Water for Elephants was such an amazing book. It was one that I found myself just lost in this world. The author just painted this beautiful world that really came to life for me when I was reading.

    As for the movie, which was visually stunning, I enjoyed it. Obviously things were changed, it happens all the time. With the combining of August and Uncle Al, that was one of the first thing I knew about from the movie, I see why they did it. The actor, the name I can’t think about, was brilliant. He literally terrified me. The one main difference I noticed was that the movie focused more on the elephant and Jacob’s relationship with Rosie whereas in the book it was more about Jacob’s journey and how we changed by the multiple people and animals he met along the way. But I still loved it πŸ™‚

  4. Oh, maybe this’ll help — my fanfic name is lion in the land.

  5. I find the translation of a book to a movie to be fascinating—when done right. And yes combing characters is one great tools. I’m sure you’re going to be able to make it work for your story. Is it another suspense?

    Haven’t seen the movie or read the book. 😦 It’s waaay down on my tbr list…not going to read until I can push R.pat OUT of my mind as a character. (Remember our first g-chat?)

  6. Robin DeJarnett

    Yes, the endings are pretty close to the same (with the exception of the Uncle Al character, of course). A few of the events leading up to the end are in a little bit different order in the movie, but I didn’t think that really changed the story itself. I don’t want to post too many spoilers, so drop me an email if you want the deets. πŸ™‚

  7. It’s been years since I read the book and I’d forgotten about Uncle Al–thanks for explaining what happened to him. I just finished reading “The Forgotten Garden” and there were so many characters that I did need some crib notes! (The book was also 550 pages so it took me a while to get through). One question about Water for Elephants–is the ending the same in the book and the movie? I couldn’t remember how the book ended.

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