500 words

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Yesterday I finally had one of those experiences I knew I should be having as a writer, but have so far missed – realising that a character I’d created was completely redundant.

This is something I’ve heard mentioned in a few places. You put a character in because you like them, but actually they don’t add anything to the story. The role they fill duplicates things done by other characters. In this case they were the local detective in a murder investigation. I already had an out of town detective, who’s a stronger character, raises questions the reader will have about the setting, and shows one side of the story’s theme (living with military occupation). I have local characters who act as witnesses and suspects, answer the detective’s questions, and show the other side of my theme. Given what the other characters do for the story, the local detective, who I’d based on someone I know and admire, is redundant.

I spotted this because of Mary Robinette Kowal‘s advice in the Writing Excuses podcast. Mary’s said a few times that every character and setting in a short story usually adds at least 500 words to its length. Specifics aside, there’s an undeniable truth in this – writing about more characters and places makes for more words. And it you’re trying to fit within the word limit for a specific market that doesn’t leave space for excess characters. Once I counted important witnesses and locations, I looked down my story plan and knew I had too much.

So goodbye second detective. I’ll miss you. Heck, you’re an interesting character, I’ll probably just recycle you in a future story. But hard as it is to cut you out, I won’t weigh this story down with you.