Sunday, April 23, 2017

Population Explosion: Filling Your Story With Too Many Characters

I once read a manuscript for an aspiring writer who introduced 40 characters in the first three chapters. She wasn’t happy when my critique suggested she pare down the number of characters she named. She felt my suggestion, if she followed it, would ruin the story because all these characters were part of the story.

Not really.

She had named and described every character as they appeared in her story. Giving a name, description, and back story to Mary Jane the cashier who appears on page  two because the protagonist is buying groceries and she’s his cashier doesn’t bequeath name status on Mary Jane. She need to be “the cashier.”

Bombarding the reader with a sports arena full of named characters is no way to build a bond between the main characters of your story and the reader. 

In most stories there are characters who need to be named and those who don’t. Minor characters who exist to people your story world can be identified by their job, their hair color, or something else. Movie cast credits are filled with tags for actors who appeared in the movie but didn’t rate being named.  

Sit through the credits after a movie and watch the complete cast list. You might see Storm Trooper #2 or Lab Technician because if the character doesn’t have an important role in the story, one that propels the plot, then he or she doesn’t merit pulling the audience’s attention from the main story characters.

This holds true with the characters in your story. If they don’t hold an important story role, they do not need to be named or even described. They are generic characters who help flesh out the story world, may even have a brief speaking role, but who exist only to lend reality to your protagonist’s world. 

Peppering your story with the name of every character can be a major impediment to building a bond between reader and character. Just think of real life. 

I’ve often been in situations in which I didn’t know the name of everyone present. (With my tendency to remember faces but not names, this happens pretty often.) When my husband was in the Army, we moved frequently and I seldom knew anyone at the new duty station. Nor did I learn all their names much less their personal histories at the first Hail and Farewell party we attended. I did become better acquainted with many of them during our tour of duty, but it took some time.

Time being the key factor. 

In our stories, pages are time. Readers become acquainted with our characters as they read each page. Filling those pages with nonessential characters is a waste of the reader’s time. They can become lost in trying to determine each character’s part in the story. Frustration easily follows and they leave your imaginary world to try another, more reader friendly one.

You know the story world you created; your readers don’t. Your job is to facilitate their entry into your story world and to keep them riveted by connecting them to your  characters’ lives.

Not every character’s life, just the lives of those who are important to the story you are writing.