Sorry if this was already answered; I didn't see it on the blog so I figured I'd ask. I can make fully-fledged characters almost on the fly. Sometimes it's helpful but most of the time, I wind up with more characters than I can handle and eventually give up on the story they're in. How can I maintain a small main cast?
My first recommendation is that age-old hated writing advice: Kill Your Darlings. You just came up with a beautiful new character! She has 6 toes! She likes salsa (the sauce), salsa (the dance), Circe (the mythical Greek figure), and Cersei (the Game of Thrones character)! She wrinkles her nose when she’s embarrassed and has a penchant for thinking she’s right about everything! Great! I want to pinch her cheeks and make her nachos. The problem is, she’s the 8th in a cast that’s already falling apart.
Kill her. (Probably.)
I don’t mean narratively. I mean straight-up set her aside and tell her “sorry, this table’s full”. She’s great, and you love her, but it doesn’t matter if she doesn’t serve the story. Every single character you create MUST have a place in the story. They must serve the narrative. No matter how beautiful, funny, or cool they are, if they are making your story fall apart, they don’t deserve a place in it.
Now, a caveat. You’ve created Jane Darling who loves salsa and Circe, and you realize she TOTALLY has a place in this plot – in fact, she’s the answer to the problem in your current story that you’ve been worrying about all this time! In that case, obviously, keep her. Just make sure she actually is doing the work for you – and that all of your current characters are, too. If you read Tolkien’s drafts for Lord of the Rings, you’ll find he’s replacing or significantly changing characters left and right. Even an author with as huge a cast as Tolkien’s has to cut or switch out characters sometimes in order to keep the story tight enough to track (and there are lots of readers who will tell you he didn’t do it enough).
All that said, you’re the only one who can really decide which characters need to stay and which should go. If you get a good reader (and I recommend you do at some point in your journey – though many writers prefer not to utilize a reader until a first draft is done), they may be able to point you in the right direction. But it sounds to me like you are suffering from another, very common problem, which is novel fatigue. It’s so easy to drop a novel. There are too many new ideas waiting. You don’t know for sure where it’s going. Things feel out of control. You don’t have enough time. And on. And on.
If you are serious about finishing a story, you’ll have to take another piece of hated age-old advice, which is: just do it. Just sit, every day, until you’ve written SOMETHING, even if you know you’re going to end up deleting what you came up with. Or just sit, every day, and think about your story for one full hour, whether anything gets written or not. There are lots of strategies, but the bottom line is that you have to interact with your story daily until it is done, however long that takes. You have to set aside newer ideas who’s newness is appealing (because you’ve thought about the old ideas for a YEAR and there’s no way they are going to sound exciting and new to you even if they sound awesome to every potential reader). You have to say no to friends and activities. You have to actively say, “I want to and am going to finish this.” Over time, sometimes a long long time, the other problems, like cast size, will become smaller, until they are relatively insignificant.
Some practical helps along the way, however:
Consider a novel-writing software, like Scrivener. These are created to help you keep track of characters and plot points.
A wall covered in sticky notes goes a long way.
A folder for new ideas (in your case new characters) that aren’t presently useful goes a long way, too. Kill Your Darlings, but give them a chance to rise from the dead some other day.
I hope this helps. I know novel writing can easily become unwieldy and overwhelming, but I believe in you!