Last night, I struggled with a scene that went on too long without really accomplishing its aims. The solution ended up being pretty simple: get rid of a character.

Rachel, I love you, but you don’t need to be in this scene.

I say “pretty simple” because getting her out of the bad scene meant revising the scene just before it to explain her absence. But an extra beat before the cut was worth it. The new scene is a page shorter and a lot sharper.

Why wasn’t this solution obvious from the start?

Well, Rachel is a pretty enjoyable character, and we like seeing her interact with the other characters in the scene. But she’s by nature a peacekeeper. When she’s around, the squabbling heroes tend to put their knives away. In real life, that’s a good thing. In drama, it’s non-dramatic.

As a general (and often excepted) rule, you’re better off with as few significant characters as possible in a scene. Each additional body you add is another set of relationships to keep track of, which helps explain this apparent paradox: the better we establish our characters, the fewer we can support in a scene.

It’s easy to write a scene with two principals and eight background players. As an audience, we don’t care about those eight. But if you put five principals in a scene, you’ve made your life difficult. The audience expects all five to contribute.

On the page, here’s an easy to way to distinguish important characters from unimportant ones: only name the characters who matter. Let SECURITY GUARD be just that. The minute you call him JOHNSON or DEBOERS, the reader promotes him from functionary to full-fledged character, with all the accompanying expectations.