Too Many Characters? | A “Star Wars” Writing Tip

Was The Last Jedi a bad movie?

Critics think it’s great…

…but for audiences, this is the worst-rated Star Wars Movies ever. Yep, even worse than The Phantom Menace.

I’m still on the fence.

However, there is one glaring problem in Star Wars Ep. 8:

There are too many characters.

Let me show you how they could have fixed this problem, and how you can fix this problem in your own writing:

Warning! Star Wars Episode 7 + 8 spoilers ahead!

Star Wars: The Last Jedi Has Too Many Characters

Four main characters.

At least seven more secondary characters (which gives us seven more character arcs. How long is this movie again?).

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This is not even the full cast of Primary and Secondary Characters…

Maybe that doesn’t sound like a lot of characters… but consider that the writers are trying to take each of the main characters on a separate Hero’s Journey

The Original Trilogy had:

  • one Hero’s Journey (Luke),
  • a second Protagonist with a much shorter arc (Han Solo),
  • and a single Antagonist who got any amount of development.

Even then, Vader only had maybe three scenes of development:

  1. I am your father.
  2. Join me.
  3. OK, nevermind, I’ll join you.

How many scenes does Kylo get? And Finn, and Rey, and Poe?

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Cool art for an Album. But even The Beatles only had two front-men.

Why It’s “Bad” to Have Too Many Characters

Three major problems will arise when you have too many main characters:

1. Your Story Gets Confusing.

My mom is a smart lady. She has also seen all of the Star Wars movies… multiple times.

But when she was trying to watch Episode 8, and we had to jump between…

  • Rey and Luke and Kylo,
  • Kylo and Snoke and Rey,
  • Poe talking to Finn and Rose,
  • the chase scenes in the Casino,
  • and the arguably unnecessary conflict between Poe and Admiral Holdo

…all while trying to keep up with the driving conflict of the imminent destruction of the Rebel Fleet…

She should have walked out of the theater with a rush of excitement and emotion. Instead, she had only questions about “what the heck did I just watch.”

2. Your “Narrative Smoothie” Gets Chunky.

For great swathes of the movie, all of our main characters ran around on different adventures.

When you have too many characters, it can feel more like you’re telling several different stories at once – all of differing quality.

What you want… is to give your audience one really good story that involves a ton of sympathetic characters and plot lines that feel immediately important.

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Image via Food in Literature

Game of Thrones (Both the Novels and the TV Series) does an excellent job with this.

Sometimes it feels like watching “Hero of the Week…”

…but with it’s vast amount of character backstories and relationships, we have known since the start that there is an inevitable convergence point.

This gives the story a sense of “one-ness” that the latest Star Wars simply lacked.

3. We Need Time to Care.

I don’t care about Poe Dameron.

I don’t have a good reason to hate General Hux (unlike Tarkin, who was torturing the princess, and blew up her planet in front of her)

 

I also have no reason to care about Finn (his enthusiasm for survival was charming in Ep. 7, it feels manufactured in 8).

Each of these characters need more space to develop. Because they were trying to accomplish so much with

How Many Characters Should You Have? How Many is “Too Many?”

Not an easy question.

The best answer:

“Only use as many characters as you need to tell the story. No more.”

Sleek, tight writing is good writing – because that’s what most people want to readNote: you can have sprawling, epic fantasies with 400k+ words, and still have sleek, tight writing. See: Brandon Sanderson

Minimize distractions for your audience, and you will engage more of them, and leave a stronger impression. Follow the signs to see if you have too many characters.

You can also use Mary Robinette Kowal’s formula if you’re writing a short story. I believe it also works for longer works of fiction (novellas, novels, epics).

3 Useful Fixes to Cut Down on Your Characters

You just wrote a book (or a Star Wars screenplay)… and you’ve decided that you have too many characters.

What now?

You have three options:

  1. Factionize them
  2. Kill them (or sweep them under the rug)
  3. Merge them

I’m going to use Star Wars as an example for each of these:

Fix #1 – Kill ’em

The new trilogy tried to do this with our old favorites: Han, Luke, and Leia.

The Force Awakens ends with the dramatic death of Han but then they gave us two more characters: Luke and Leia.

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The cast of Star Wars multiplies faster than a five-headed hydra. Art by ForrestImel

When you have too many main characters, increase the “attrition rate.”

Game of Thrones (both the HBO series and the Novels) does this extremely well. In fact, it’s become a staple of the series.

When you have too many characters, don’t be afraid to kill them. This makes the series feel visceral, raw, and urgent. You have to keep reading/watching because you want to make sure your favorite character survives.

For instance, I have a friend who started watching Season 1 recently.

He was a big fan of Eddard Stark – and even believed that Ed was the main character…

Eddard_Stark_Game_of_Thrones.jpg
Image via the Game of Thrones Wiki

And if you look at screen time, the main character of Season 1 was clearly Eddard Stark…

At least until George R.R. Martin decided to clean up his cast a bit. 

GoTScreenTime.png

How Could The Last Jedi Killed Characters to Make a Better Movie?

Some quick options off the top of my head:

  • Kill Snoke in Episode 7 (clearly he wasn’t important anyway)
  • Kill Captain Phasma in Episode 7 (Same as Snoke)
  • Kill Poe (Hey, he got most of his crew killed. Wouldn’t his self-sacrifice have been way more interesting?)
  • Kill Leia in that ridiculous space scene (What if she had died in space – instead of acquiring magical flying powers with no foreshadowing whatsoever? It could have been such a powerful moment.)

Fix #2 – Sweep ’em Under the Rug

Death is not the only way to remove characters from your story.

Sweeping old, less-important characters under the rug is a time-honored tradition.

  • What happened to Bilbo after The Hobbit? He plays a minor role in the films, but mostly he is swept away to live in Rivendell.
  • What happened to literally every Batman villain ever? After Batman deals with them, they get swept away to Arkham Asylum… as a bonus, the writers can use them again whenever they want.

How Could The Last Jedi Have Done This Better?

BB-8 got swept aside in Episode 8. Why? I don’t know. Maybe he wasn’t selling enough toys. 

HLJ12.jpg
Maybe “round Legos” don’t sell well?

From a story-telling standpoint, this was a good idea. BB-8 was not critical to the story they wanted to tell.

Here’s a few other characters who could have gotten the sweep:

  • Leia – once again, she was not critical to the story. Poe is the only real “active” character in this plot line. Maybe Holdo, too.
  • Finn – his story was more or less complete in The Force Awakens. He was a selfish coward who learned that fighting is good when it comes to saving friends. Why did we have to go through this arc again in Episode 8?
  • Supreme Leader Snoke – They kept setting him up as the Big Bad Evil Guy. But his ending was so anti-climactic… Why not just leave him to fester in the background?
  • Hux – Hux is comedic relief. That’s the only reason he had to be in Episode 8 – for that one poorly-executed telephone joke. Get him out.

3. Merge ’em or Cut ’em Completely

Now this is what the New Trilogy should have done from the start.

This is also what I recommend most new writers do when they edit any first draft.

Chances are… you have some redundant characters. Maybe they’re cool, maybe they have some great dialogue or personality traits.

But we want to tell sleek, powerful, so-bold-they-cut-to-your-core stories.

Extra characters – even when they’re cool – are dead weight. The ability to murder your darlings will separate you from the amateur writers.

(Or, in Star Wars’ case, it could have made a much better and longer-lasting series. Instead, now we’re left with a bloated, forgettable cast).

Ask yourself this:

  • Who else can say these lines?
  • Can anyone else take this action?

If you have an answer… chances are, you can merge or cut that character.

How Star Wars Could Have Done this Better:

  • Merge Poe and Finn – What if Finn was an Ace imperial pilot? What if his ship crashed on Jakku, and he saw what his targets looked like… up close and in person? This would be the perfect way to disenfranchise a Stormtrooper from the First Order propaganda… and you’d still have your Ace Pilot.
  • Remove Holdo – I hated this character the moment I saw her. I have nothing against purple hair –  but this is Star Wars. If the most imaginative character trait you can come up with for your Admiral is purple hair… Anyway, her only purpose was to butt heads with Poe. And then Sacrifice herself. Leia is already amazing at butting-heads. And imagine what a glorious exit that would have been for her if she had been the one to suicide bomb the First Order? How much impact could that have had on Kylo Ren’s character?
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Interesting Character Descriptions help create unforgettable characters. Unfortunately, Episode 8 gave us less imaginative characters.. in almost every way. Compare Admiral Holdo (Ep. 8) with Admiral Ackbar (Ep. 6). 
  • Remove Phasma – This was one of the side characters I was most excited for. And one with the most disappointing ending. She was setup as Finn’s main antagonist… why not just remove her entirely and let the entire First Order be his antagonist?
  • Remove Rose – I didn’t have strong emotions for Rose. I’m glad we’re seeing more diversity in Hollywood. But if you can find a way to merge Finn and Poe, or find a better reason to send Finn on the mission… you can cut out Rose entirely.
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Kelly Marie Tran as “Rose Tico.” Actually, if you want to keep the diversity in Star Wars VIII… Kelly would have made a great “Rey.”

The Power of Less

In the marketing world… stories sell products. So you have to be good at telling them.

Powerful advertisements do not focus on huge lists of benefits and features. Instead, the best ads focus on one big idea.

One-Big-Idea-Dark@2x.png
Star Wars: The Last Jedi did not feel cohesive because there was no “big idea” to tie everything together.

Watch any commercial – and you’ll notice they are trying to pluck one emotion in particular.

You have an entire lifetime to write interesting, engaging characters. You do not need to fit them all into one script, short story, or novel.

I’m not saying you need to cut down your cast until you only have one character left…

…but too many characters will slow down your story.

Use these three tools to start cutting, and you’ll find the diamonds in your story shine so much brighter for it.

Writing Exercise:

Find three of your favorite books/movies/TV episodes. Write down at least one character from each that could be cut out in some way.

How would you do it? How does removing them improve the story?

12 thoughts on “Too Many Characters? | A “Star Wars” Writing Tip

  1. I’m sure some great writer could make a large cast work, but ot for me! Mines large enough and Im itching to ditch a few, but first need to finish the revision so can ‘see’ them all better.

    I have a critique partner, who has a huge cast if characters and I can’t really tell them apart. Unfortunately, when I gently commented on this she defend why. *Shrug* Maybe it’ll work out, but Imop shes giving herself a major headache.

    I did give what tips I know on making sure the dialog, body beats, and personality aren’t humm… ‘hero in a can.’ So, it’s up to her to use this info or not.

    Thank you for sharing your tips, I’ve bookmarked this page. 😗

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If they all seem kinda “samey” then yeah – that could be a problem. When critiquing, I try not to tell people HOW to fix their problems… rather I try to highlight the problem I had with their writing.

      “All of your characters are blending together.” is more helpful than “You should kill X, and merge Y and Z together-” because writers are creative. Which means… we don’t take kindly to other people telling us HOW to create.

      As for your cast – I think you should consider your character numbers WHILE revising.

      The best advice I’ve heard on this:

      “Keep cutting characters until the story simply can’t happen. Then add one back.”

      That’s a simple way to make sure you have just the right amount of characters…

      Like

  2. Sorry, what I was trying to type was my son has been keeping me posted on the reviews of the movie since released. He has been so disappointed to see the movie writers destroy what made Stars Wars the classic film it was and should be. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I shared your post with my 19 year old avid Star Wars fan, and Fan Fiction blogger. When your post came across my WP feed, I was surprise to see it. My son has been keeping me (like your Mom, has seen the original Star Wars movies when released). Anyway, my son was impressed with your post and enjoy and read to me your Mom’s reactions to seeing the movie. Good post and thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s wonderful. I’m glad he enjoyed it. As to the writers destroying Star Wars… I still haven’t decided.

      On the one hand, they were trying to do some pretty interesting things: end a legendary trilogy, make a unique Star Wars plot, etc. But on the other hand, I almost got up and left the theater in the middle of that movie it made me cringe so much.

      Thank you for your comment Denise!

      Like

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