On April 11, 2015, capng wrote, What if you have too many characters? My novel takes place on a ship, with the MC being the captain, and while I have all the secondary characters developed and planned out, I feel like there are too many to give them the page time they deserve. Any ideas, please?
Kenzi Parsons answered, I just started reading “The Hound of Rowan” Series (which everyone should read–it’s amazing!!), which has tons of characters. However, the author keeps the reader from getting confused or losing track of characters by bringing them up when they’re needed, or keeping them in the background. Even with only a few interactions, those moments are enough to solidify the characters so that when they go “back on the shelf” (not being used at the current scene), the reader still knows they’re there and isn’t surprised when they are pulled back out again once they are needed. Basically, you only need a few good interactions to get the characters known to the audience. If they’re fleshed out and unique, the reader won’t confuse them and will keep them in the back of their minds. Even one interaction is really all it takes.
My first thought is to wonder whether all these characters are needed. A ship is such a temptation to imagine characters! The crew, the passengers, a stowaway or two, the pirates who will board the ship, the pirates’ prisoners. They all have their own stories. Who can resist? Sadly, just because we invent characters and get drawn in by our own brilliance doesn’t mean they all belong in our story.
If not in every book I’ve written, then in almost every one, I’ve had to give up complexity for the sake of a coherent plot. In early drafts of Fairest, for example, I gave Queen Ivi a mother and a brother. The mother’s character came from Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice–superficial, grasping, less than clever–and I planned for her to account for Ivi’s behavior. The brother, decent but moody, was to be a love interest for Aza. But they slowed down my story, as did my many scenes between Ivi and Skulni. (This was in the third-person omniscient version.) Ivi fascinated me, and I had fun exploring her insecurities and Skulni’s ways of exploiting them. The story grew, mushroomed, put out tentacles, became unwieldy. Finally I had to sharpen my machete and chop. The mother and brother landed on the cutting room floor, and, most painful of all, I had to simplify Ivi and Skulni.
When I think about it, I’m still sad about the loss. Maybe a more accomplished writer could have woven in all the characters and all the scenes and made them work. On the other hand, I still have both in earlier drafts, and–maybe this is weird–but I think the material I deleted remains in a ghostly way and adds depth to my story.
Also on the plus side, I like a plot that moves along. Extraneous bits seem self-indulgent. I can get away with a little extra embroidery, if it’s charming or funny or emotionally rich, but not a lot.
In capng’s story, we need to think about what our Captain MC’s problem is and who’s needed to help him and hinder him. If we’ve dreamed up a cast of characters, we have a treasure trove to dip into. We reread our pages of character descriptions. Who will be useful? How? When we choose the ones we need, their personalities help shape the progress and reversals that make up our plot.
The ones who are left over, whose traits and back stories cry out irresistibly to us can get their own separate stories, can form the Ship trilogy or seven-book series.
When we’re writing any story–when, for example, our MC arrives in a new place, say, a castle, where many characters live, we can try not to name the minor ones. If we have to stick with one through a few paragraphs or pages, we can pick one of the very few traits we’ve given him to refer to him, like we can call him the tall man. It’s kind of like the Thanksgiving turkey, which I never name, because I don’t want to be tempted to imagine its life before my oven. A big vegetable-eater, I don’t name the carrot I’m about to chomp down on, either. And, as much as possible, we can avoid naming characters we’re not going to have a story relationship with, either. Sometimes we have to, when repetition of the trait becomes awkward. But once we’ve named a character we’ve burdened the reader a little. She thinks, Am I going to have to pay to attention to this Maximilian and remember his name and who he is?
Many writers start with a character and what he wants and grow the plot from there. I generally begin with an idea and dream up characters who’ll work as a vehicle for it. So far, I’ve never started with a bunch of characters clamoring for a story. Might be fun, though, and if I did, I’d start by looking for a unifying problem. Maybe I’d have seven MCs instead of one–or more than seven. I think of Bat 6 by Virginia Euwer Wolff, which has–count ‘em!–twenty-one first-person narrators. However, the story has a strong and simple plot, organized around a girls’ softball league playoff. It has strong themes: prejudice, war, guilt. A wonderful book, appropriate for upper elementary school kids and up.
If our plot does call for a big cast, Kenzi Parson’s advice is excellent. We want our minor players to be memorable so they’ll be, yes, remembered. We can give them a speech mannerism, for example. As soon as Uri says, “…doo wickety,” he returns to life for the reader. Or he can have a visible trait: wild hair or extreme fashion preferences or big gestures. When this characteristic pops up, the reader knows him. He can always make our MC laugh, or he can always say the wrong thing. But, if Uri is a minor character, no matter how much we love him, no matter how much we know about him, we have to keep it simple or he may derail our story.
We can use setting to separate characters. You know how we recognize real people by place, and how confusing it can be when they show up in the wrong spot? In the supermarket we recognize the cashier who moves his line along faster than anyone else, but if we see him walking his dog in the park, he just looks familiar and he drives us crazy because we can’t remember who he is. In Fairest again, there’s the library-keeper, and I don’t let him leave his area. When Aza goes to the library, he’s there, and he rises right up in the reader’s mind. We can use that to help our readers. Uli, say, grooms the horses at the riding academy. The reader associates him with the stable. In the ship story, a certain character can keep to her stateroom. Our MC goes in, and there she is.
Or one minor character may never appear unless a particular major one is present. Uri’s grandmother may never be in the story unless Uri is in the scene. When Uri is there and an old lady comes along, the reader remembers the grandmother.
Or a minor character may show up when there’s a certain kind of action afoot. Suppose there’s an angry minor character, and there’s a mutiny. This angry fellow appears only to stoke the other characters’ fury. Oh, there he is, the reader thinks. I know him. We’re in for an argument.
Here are four prompts:
∙ Mysteries often demand a big cast. Try one on a ship. The steward brings the first mate his morning coffee and finds him dead at the rudder and the ship far off course. Write the story and solve the mystery. If this is a cruise ship, for example, you’ll need to find a way to narrow the number of suspects.
∙ Choose six secondary characters from your finished stories or story fragments and find an idea that will work for all of them. Then put them together in a story.
∙ Pick six secondary characters from books you love and put them together in a new story.
∙ Use some or all of these fairy tale characters in a story: the hunter from “Snow White”; the third youngest dancing princess; the enchanted prince who is her dance partner; the genie of the ring from “Aladdin”; the miller in “Rumpelstiltskin”; Little Red Riding Hood herself; the North Wind in “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” (one of my favorite fairy tales); and the farmer’s wife in the nursery song, “Three Blind Mice.”
Have fun, and save what you write!