A question from a reader about creating and using secondary characters prompted me to think about the people in a book as though they were actors in a movie — complete with pay scales.
If an actor speaks in a movie, even if it’s just one line, the actor’s union rules require that he be paid a great deal more in terms of money and screen credit than if he just walks through as an extra. And of course, the more actors you hire for your movie, the more money you’re paying out — even if most of them don’t talk.
So authors can often benefit from asking themselves this question, before they create yet another character: “If I had to pay this person to show up and say these lines, would it be worth the money? Or could I give that comment to a character who’s already in the story, and save the fee?”
In writing, of course, extra characters don’t actually cost money. But we “pay” for them with space, and with word count. Each new person has to be established and identified, and that takes up room on the page. But if we can use a character we already have in the story, then we can save the space it would take to create that second person — and use it to further develop the hero, the heroine, and the love story.
Though this is especially true in romance novels where we keep a tight focus on the hero and heroine, it’s something for every author to think about. Sometimes (like with a cozy mystery or a romantic suspense) we need to have more characters so that the bad guy isn’t obvious. But even when the cast is bigger, it’s wise to ask — “Do I need this person? Does he play a significant and unique role in the story? Or can I combine his attributes and his contribution and his dialogue with someone else, and keep things simpler for the reader?”