Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Writing 101: Limit Your Characters

Have you ever forgotten someone's name that you went to school with, someone you met a few times, that neighbor who lives down the street? If it's possible for you to forget the name of real human beings who are standing directly in your face, just think how I must feel when I'm trying to memorize the 52 characters you put into your book. As an author, you have to limit your characters. Otherwise, I'm going to start forgetting them...so why should they be in the book in the first place? 

Bob and Jim and Nancy and Fred and Donna and Phil and Becky and...

Frankly, I'm lucky if I can accurately remember my own address and two phone numbers. I walk around all day with several of my own characters rattling around in my head, plus I'm juggling storylines from like a dozen different totally interesting shows at any given time. So honestly, it's just cruel for you to expect me to keep track of the 30-plus characters you've added to your 200-page book. Give them names that are any more complicated than Jill and Bob, and I'm in danger of getting a short circuit in my brain. 

Here's the rub: I've got way less stuff going on than the average reader you want to target. That's because I only read one book at a time, and I do it pretty darned slowly. The readers you want to target? They devour books by the day, absorbing and picking apart plots for breakfast, lunch and dinner. What are the odds that they're going to remember all your multi-faceted characters three weeks from now?

The odds start to get better if you focus on creating just a few really great characters. In every book, there are three basic character types. It's in your best interest to keep the names in each column down to a reasonable level. 

  • Main character: Your protagonist is, clearly, the most important character in the book. I should get to know everything about the way this character works, how they think, what they want, and so on. Make sure you give me the chance to do that by keeping the focus on this character. Don't dazzle me with 17 love interests or 7 best friends, along with 12 siblings and 34 cousins. I want to know this character. Don't be afraid to put this person in a room, alone, with only their own thoughts. You don't have to have additional characters in every single scene to make scenes interesting.

  • Supporting cast: Of course, every main character does need to have some sort of plot to follow. Your supporting cast might be made up of close friends, family members, love interests, fellow students and/or co-workers. These are the people the main character interacts with most frequently. I want to get to know these characters, but only well enough to figure out their relationship to the main character. That's who I care about. They're called a supporting cast for a reason -- they're here to complete the protagonist's story, not to tell their own. Keep the supporting cast simple, focusing only on the key players, and make each one of them distinct enough for me to tell them apart. I shouldn't have to re-read every name and ask myself "wait. Who the hell is that person, again?" Continue to remind me who the hell that person is, because if you don't I will forget.

  • Extras: There are going to be background characters in every story. Teachers, background co-workers, the parking lot attendant, a grocery store clerk -- into every life, random faces flit by constantly. I don't care about background characters. Give me a name and a little bit of description, so I can picture the scene, but don't give me their whole life history. I just don't care, and it's too much to memorize. Let background characters enter the scene and then leave; that's their job.

Too many characters only clutters up the story. It becomes a distraction and forces me to constantly question and double-check. If I'm looking back through chapters to figure out what's significant about Cathy, I can hardly focus on the plot you've so carefully constructed. You don't need a lot of people or a lot of extras to create a great story -- you just need the story. Highlight the characters who count, and let the others linger in the shadows. I don't need to know them all, and I'm not going to love them all. Put a spotlight on just a few of them, and they'll be a lot more meaningful to me...and all your readers.

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  1. Great post! At one point with my WIP, I felt there were characters that were bogging down the story. They were like the extras you described, but I gave them too much attention. So I limited their existence by just having the narrator mention them and then move on. The focus shouldn't be on characters who aren't important to the story.

  2. I'm currently writing an ensemble novel set in the aftermath of a tragedy - with means my MCs all have parents, friends and flatmates who are concerned about them. I'm referring to them as MC's mother/father etc to avoid naming lots of people - it may or may not work!

  3. Thanks for the tip, Sarah! I'm intrigued by your idea, Annalisa. Please let me know when the story is out.