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I've been worrying for a while about 'dropping' characters between the three distinct sections of my novel. I'm happy with the plot, and it makes sense for these characters to not be present as it progresses (they're not dead, just not around).

Most of these characters get 2-3 scenes max, and they're gone. The entire book is told from limited 3rd person POV of the MC.

Part 1 - I introduce various characters as part of the MC's daily life, they're involved in incidents and fleshed out a little. There's some friends, family and colleagues.

Part 2 - after the inciting incident, it feels necessary to 'drop' these characters almost completely. It would be difficult to logically justify their presence, and they don't fit the new situation and location.

Part 3 - err...I do it again. Major characters from part 2 are left behind - this is good in the case of the mentor characters and the MC having to stand by themself, but it feels a little...bare? on the character side. I'm strongly considering trying to engineer at least 1-2 minor characters going with the MC here to keep a little continuity.

Obviously there's all the usual advice about beta-readers and "if you do it well, it's fine", but I'm curious to know whether you guys feel this is an inherently bad idea?

Any thoughts about how to reduce the impact on the reader? (e.g. I try to refer to friends/family sometimes in the new settings, and how the MC feels they may react to events)

Any examples of literature where this has been handled successfully would also be really helpful.

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No. This happens in Lord of the Rings, as one example.

You should definitely provide a reason some characters go away. They die, they have something else to do, they've accomplished their personal goal and have no need to continue, they are going back to their farm, their wife, the parents they need to care for. Whatever.

Handling separation that is likely to be permanent is a part of life. The children of military families today deal with this a lot; every 3-5 years their parent gets re-stationed, sent across the country or across the world, leaving their friends and even extended family behind. Some never to be seen again. My best friend in grade school left because his father was re-stationed in Japan.

So be sure to write it. Splitting up, amicably or not, tearfully or angrily, is part of life. Come to a parting of ways in the conclusion of each section. Don't just "drop" the characters, make it clear their role in the story is done. They have other plans.

In fact, you can go back and plant suggestions about these other plans, all the way back to the time they were introduced. So in the section conclusion, they had a mission, the audience knew about it, and now the mission is done. Time to go home to my wife and kids and rebuild. Best of luck, MC.

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    Thanks Amadeus, great answer - I hadn't really considered LOTR due to most of the 'split' cast still getting their own chapters. I'll give it a bit longer to see if there's any other opinions before accepting this as the definite answer.
    – Phil S
    Jun 13, 2022 at 12:51
  • Glad to help, good luck with your story.
    – Amadeus
    Jun 13, 2022 at 13:06
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No, getting separated from other characters can be natural. It can even be a good idea.

It seems to me you have a three-act structure, each part being an act.

The first plot point (end of part/act 1), or its consequences are sometimes done as a physical voluntary, or involuntary movement (e.g. Luke goes to Mos Eisely, Katniss is brought to the Capitol), so it's natural that people will be left behind.

Act 1 is also used to demonstrate the MC's normal world and will sometimes require another cast than once the hero has been thrown into the world of adventure (act 2). The normal world can either be something the character risks losing if they can't solve the problems of act 2, or it can be something they need to defeat or break free from or maybe reform.

Another thing you'll see in some literature is that as the end draws near (i.e. we go into part/act 3) the MC will be deprived of support structures (most often characters). They could be left behind for many different reasons such as being killed, injured, or lost behind.

This is done to increase tension. If you're fighting an evil monster, it's bad, if you're fighting an evil monster all alone, it's even worse. (Just ask Ellen Ripley...)

If you feel you are leaving characters hanging you may be able to reuse them in the resolution. This final part of the story (after the final clash between protagonistic and antagonistic forces) can be used to show the new normal, the character back home from their adventures, and what they learned from them. Or what changed in their world, or what problems they solved in that world.

Repeating characters in the beginning and end can also sometimes be used in a minor conflict. This is usually a conflict between the MC and some other character and it's only tangentially related to the main conflict of the story. It starts in the beginning, in the normal world, and is resolved in the end in the new normal world. And the antagonist is usually not even present in the other parts of the story.

This is usually done to create resonance and drive home character development.

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There's nothing wrong with that, in fact, it's what you should do if it feels most natural. It should feel natural to the story for them to be there if they're there or not be there if they're not.

And the obvious exception and way to handle it is: if it feels natural that someone would be somewhere and you need for them to not be, then come up with a reason they can't: they die, they're on a vacation, they're in jail, they're having a mental health crisis, someone gave them bad directions to get rid of them, they're sick, etc etc.

One other aspect to consider is that sometimes readers become really attached to certain side-characters and really want to see more of them. If a bunch of your beta readers make comments about really wishing they could see more of a particular character, then maybe tweak the story to give that character more screentime.

But this strategy should, I think, be used minimally and as an after-the-fact thing. You can't write the first draft thinking of how readers might react or you'll get a wimpy story. Go with your gut; write what you think needs to happen. Just be humble enough to have a little flexibility later on, knowing you could always be wrong about some things.

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It depends whether this would seem to the reader to be a mysterious disappearance, or just the natural ebb and flow of human relations.

Like suppose I was writing an autobiography. (And for some reason people actually wanted to read it.) I would likely mention my girlfriend Jennifer whom I dated in high school. Then we broke up. I've never met her since. I don't think it would surprise a reader if after describing our break up she is never mentioned again.

Or even if there's no explicit scene of the hero separating from this person, he might have a friend or associate that he hangs out with for a while, then one day they get together for the last time and go their separate ways. But neither of them knows that it's the last time they will meet. They wouldn't have to have a big argument or even have some specific reason to not see each other again. They just don't happen to run into each other again.

On the other hand, there are people that in real life you would expect will continue to be part of your life. Like if the hero gets married and you talk a lot about his home life and his relationship with his wife, and then you just stop mentioning her, the reader might well wonder what happened to her. Did she die? Did they get divorced? Etc. Depending on the flow of the story it MIGHT make perfect sense that she never comes up again, or it might not.

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