How to Eliminate Characters without Overdosing on Chocolate

Posted by on July 26, 2011

You’ve started writing your masterpiece. Low and behold, that small Microsoft Word file has now blossomed.  Before your eyes, the document now has 40,000 words, 50,000 words, and 75,000 words … 100,000 words. The excitement makes the carpal tunnel in your wrist worth the pain.  Then your agent or trusted mentor suggests you sharpen your novel by eliminating one or two characters (heartbreak) and to shed 25,000 words (stroke).  “Do this and you’ll make your masterpiece more marketable.”

I have to kill a few characters?  What of their dozens of pithy phrases?

After you’ve finished medicating yourself with Godiva chocolates, grape soda, and any other pity-party aphrodisiac, it’s time to get serious. What is the path forward?

Plan Number I

I can use Microsoft Word. The find-and-replace feature will help me hunt down and delete those unneeded scenes and characters. I start searching and soon the threads and arcs blur, and I wind up face down on the keyboard.

For anyone writing a novel over 40,000 words, utilizing a single Microsoft Word file for management of a novel is very cumbersome. One can successfully find a character by searching on their name, but what if the character is referred to in different ways based upon changes in POV— father, my lord Duke the gentleman, the nobleman, sir.  One would have to remember every occurrence in the massive word document to hunt and find them as well as the context and scene goals. If you are a savant, no problem. For the rest of us, more chocolates please.

Plan Number II

I will take the time to split my manuscript into separate chapter. I will again use the find-and-replace method to manage the changes. The smaller bites of the novel should make it easier to ensure scene integrity. Nonetheless, I loose the power of global changes. I will have to make a list and create checkmarks to run the same find-and-replace searches, for each chapter. More often than not, I will forget and be at the mercy of a lovely critique partner to catch my mistakes. Mental note: Send critique partners chocolate.

Plan Number III

I can pepper my flintlock and shoot the manuscript into a hundred pieces. This does not quite meet my objectives but feels good after the headache arising from attempting Plan I, Plan II, or the consumption of too much sugar.

I can breakdown and utilize a writing program.  Noooo!

I always pictured myself as one of those writers who sat down at a typewriter and banged out a wonderfully perfect manuscript. Did Hemmingway use a program other than a notebook, pen, and typewriter?  Of course not, but he did kill himself… I digress.

I have too many distractions— a little one running around, a military man husband running around, and a day job. I need help. I reluctantly chose a program called yWriter5. This is a free program.  Free.

I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on something that may not work or worse impede my writing ability. I wanted to try something first. At a grand total price of free, yWriter5 seems to be the ticket.

Simon Hayes is a programmer (founder of Spacejock Software) and a writer. Hayes built yWriter5 to think like a writer. You can manage scene by scene, storyboard the plot, establish and track scene goals, and most importantly, track characters and their points of views throughout the entirety of your novel.  Sure, there are millions of programs that you can purchase to do this, but did I mention yWriter5 is free.

Setting up yWriter5 is actually quite easy. Download the program from: Or from us: yWriter5Full. (If you end up really liking the software send www.spacejock a few bucks.)

When I first downloaded this program, I wasn’t really motivated.  With a hundred thousand words and well-developed characters, I really didn’t want to spend the time setting up the software. I had to paste my character sketch information into the program. I had to write down in the appropriate fields the goals, conflict, and motivation for each scene (not just chapters). Much of this I had in Excel charts, but it just seemed so onerous to copy and paste.

With my slimmer novel goals looming, I loaded in all the information and the pseudonyms for each of the characters.

When I imported my novel (in RTF format) into the program, it magically sliced open each chapter down to the scene level. It located every instance of a character throughout the novel, scene by scene.

I went and analyzed the GMC for each scene. Low and behold, I was able to identify instances that, while interesting or led to a deeper understanding of a character’s motivations, could be put on the chopping block.

Moreover, yWriter5 took the pain out of the guillotine. One can label a scene used or unused. Unused takes a scene out of the word count, storyboarding, etc. but leaves it intact for harvesting.

If you are utilizing Microsoft Word, you have to cut and/or delete unused scenes. You have to be very good at backing up your manuscript to retrieve a deleted Microsoft Word scene. I’ve been burned more than once with Microsoft.

Now, I have a path forward to eliminate or reduce minor characters without destroying or sagging my plot. I feel much more confident that my arcs are still compelling and complete because I can see the whole storyboard. I have to get rid of a few wonderful characters in order to accomplish this tighter story but their essence will remain in unused scenes in yWriter5 to be resurrected in another time or fashion.

My formally daunting task now seems possible. When the impossible seems possible, everyone should smile regardless of the amount of Godiva she has ingested.

PS:  If you end up really liking the software slip a few bucks.

4 Responses to How to Eliminate Characters without Overdosing on Chocolate

  1. Lori

    Awesome tip, Vanessa! I am definitely going to try this one. Thanks!

  2. Carrie Pagels

    May have to eliminate a character and move him to a different manuscript. This is going to come in handy! Thanks!

  3. Sheri Salatin

    I have used ywriter and love it. I don’t use it to actually write my novel, but for scene management and outlining, it’s great! Thanks for the tip. I’m still working on my debut.

  4. Connie Almony

    Cool! Vanessa, you’re the woman for the techno part of writing.