Characters are a necessary–and perhaps the most important–aspect of a novel. Their thoughts, motivations, and actions drive a book forward. But as important as characters are there is such a thing as having too many characters, something I like to call Excessive Character Syndrome.
When is a character unnecessary? When he/she serves no effective purpose and thus the story can go on its meandering way without them. A perfect example of this would be J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings. As interesting and as immortalized as the book has become, there are plenty of characters such as Bomdadeil who do nothing to advance the story and of whom the book could easily have gotten on without. Excessive characters create extra length, detract from other characters, and can bog down an otherwise intriguing tale. And if Tolkein is guilty of this than any writer–myself included–can fall into this trap.
I’m currently working on revisions for the second installment of a trilogy. When I began I only had a few fixed points for a plot line and not a fully fleshed out tale. To counter this I wrote out a list of existing characters that I knew would be needed and then came up with characters that I thought would be needed. I assigned motivations to both parties to help engineer plot points. While this was indeed helpful, it caused me to create a host of unnecessary characters, one of whom was Travis Hill.
In the book I’m writing there’s a lot of civil discontent with the established authorities. Travis Hill was envisioned as a type of conduit for this as well as an additional person who’d cause problems for the protagonist. Alas, he proved unnecessary for several reasons; he detracted from the primary antagonist who vocalized many similar points, he dropped off the face of the manuscript two-thirds of the way through, and–most importantly–the story got on just find without him.
Characters are the most important part of any tale, but if they don’t serve a purpose and their absence has no impact, then they have to go.