Too many Characters? What I wish I would Have Known

16 May

So my beta reader and my niece are critiquing the current project and it’s hilarious how much they disagree. This isn’t new because I used to do writers circles and critique groups until I realized that most people aren’t going to be particularly helpful. People who like emotional gut wrenchers want different things than someone more technically inclined, for instance.

On a side note, sometimes they totally do agree (they both want more Tiffany – I get it guys), I know one of my weaknesses as a writer is that I have too many ideas, but another common criticism is “Too many characters” meanwhile, my niece is fine with me naming just about everyone. She knows that the bartender named George isn’t necessarily important, but it’s nice to know that I’ve taken the time to name him. My beta reader will say, “Robin Hood and his men” and my niece will want to know who some of these Merry Men are.

Compared to epic stories of yore, with modern books we often have very intimate voices and really get to know the characters. I noticed as a kid that we could do multiple retellings of Cinderella because Cinderella in some versions we don’t know much about her personally. We can be very liberal in the characterization and personality of not just fictional characters, but sometimes historical ones as well.

What this ultimately has led to are stories that are very character driven but don’t feel as epic in scope. A trick, for those of us who like epic worlds. For me, I like having it feel like the world exists beyond the characters. One of the appeals of fantasy and science fiction is the feeling like I’m going to another time and place. This is more possible when you have big, chonky books spanning multiple volumes, but let’s pretend that each story I’m talking here should more or less be self-contained. I can’t guarantee that the audience will commit to an entire series every time.

I think what it comes down to is, who is your prospective audience, and what do they want?

I draw influence from many forms of media, and when I look at video games I think often they totally did cater to the audience. The developers were gamers too, so when you’re running around a village, they supposed they wanted the NPCs to have sass and attitude, or make shops that are essentially full of nothing so it feels like there’s places to explore that aren’t one of the places to buy equipment relevant to the game. They knew we’d try to throw chickens at people, so the chickens will attack you in certain games. There’s easter eggs and other things hidden for people who are willing to really explore.

Books aren’t video games and, so it’s important to acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of the genre. What can take me chapters to explain can be shown in a splashy musical number or even a training montage. On the other hand, we still allude to other things going on when the focus is elsewhere.

My beta reader Ron, bless him, makes it sound like I’m supposed to be giving flair and complicated back story to everybody, and when I have say, a cast of fifteen crew, that’s just not possible. Now, I’m not saying that I can’t have a fifteen book series and we get to focus a book on each of those fifteen people, but at the end of the day, they’re bound to interact with a town guard or someone who is just a bit character in their story. Maybe you want a very cozy, intimate fantasy that goes into the life of the guy who makes the village donuts, but I like epic stories where the heroes travel abroad and meet people and, nothing is worse than the first person the heroes stumble across being just the person they were looking for.

This is where voice intimacy matters. If you’re already familiar with Morte D’Arthur, then you don’t mind if I go into a tangent about an already familiar story told from the perspective of Sir Gawain. My favourite novel is Til We Have Faces: A Myth Retold. It’s not possible to get into the intimate perspective of Orual until I’m familiar with the OG (or at least familiar enough with it) but for some people, they wouldn’t be interested in the story at all, because they want to focus on the love story.

I get it because growing up I was given media that was “Just for me” and I didn’t care for it the way I liked other stories aimed at a different demographic. I didn’t mind having a large cast; I often didn’t care about background knight #4 I wanted a rip-roaring adventure and it made sense that the protagonists had a team to assist him. I read a lot of commentary that complain that modern novels are so big and have often lost their focus; we’re waiting years if not decades because the author decides to go on tangents about side character’s sub plots. Books nowadays tend towards being thicker, but certain audiences eat it up. Again, with video games: If you’re there just to play the game, that’s fine, but you can find really small attention to detail in plenty of games that most people would completely overlook.

How do I know how to do it in a book?

I don’t think there’s any one answer, as I’ve seen younger readers reading books meant for adults and vice versa. I would argue that you need just enough characters to make it feel realistic for them being there, as well as who they would know. Also, cheat like mad where warranted.

When I wrote Ballad, I realized that there are an awful lot of young teenage boys and men who would be cussing like crazy just because they could. The short of it, is that I made some of them who specifically don’t swear around women and children, and make the other characters fall in line. I like punchier, reserved swearing as opposed to some 13 year old edgelord who is taking notes and repeating everything he hears.

To cheat here, translates to, If your character is nobility, they probably have a ton of servants, courtiers, and people who run their castle or whatever. They might know like a handful of them, but not particularly well. A cheat here would be like, “My washerwoman” and have another character name Charlene or whatever. Allude that someone who’s helping the protagonists have older children, but they’re off apprenticing or doing something. They would be extras in a background movie, but they don’t affect the plot kind of deal.

So that means that the heroes aren’t meeting a ton of characters or getting to know people particularly well when they first meet them. I allude that Seth and Lily meet or at least see a character named Colton before being properly introduced the next day, and I have subsequent ideas to have them interact with more characters before they meaningfully interact with them in subsequent chapters, or have Tiffany interact with them and frame them to the reader one way before getting to know them through the lens of Seth or Lily. Other characters they meet for a scene, are named, and are gone for the remainder of the narrative because they no longer pass that way.

When I write a first draft, I write out scenes and about 20-30k in, plot out a storyline, but I don’t worry if I deviate too much. After the first draft, I pretend I need to scale it down, like we’re on budget theater. Can two characters be blended into one? What purpose does this scene have? That isn’t to say I pare everything down, but ask myself what would be cut out or rewritten if someone else was doing a screenplay or adaptation.

When you’re moving around from place to place, like in a story like A Ballad of Wood and String, it needs to feel like the characters are in places with people. So when our heroes are at home in Stagmil, townsfolk are mentioned, the important ones stick and some are fleshed out, even though the focus is introducing the main characters, the plot, and the stakes. When they start traveling, some characters are named, others aren’t. And finally when they arrive at the cursed castle and the city around it, more characters are introduced. Not everyone needs to be given focus right away. For instance, Tiffany meets a page named Oliver well before Lily or Seth do; he’s not named but described in a way that it’s obvious this is the same character. Tiffany’s overloading the reader with lots of information, she’s having a hard time remembering the names of people she’s just met. Oliver is important later in the story, so while Tiffany is coming to grips with the reality of her situation, she’s letting the reader know what’s important (or what she thinks is important) now. Plus, makes for fun reread value later.

Consider also that this is a spin-off of The Mermaid and the Unicorns, a novel written for an older Middle Grade audience. I went out of my way to name important characters, but some characters are their characteristics. For instance, when Daphne arrives in Shelkie’s Bay, she meets people, and some are named, but others aren’t; I allude she’s learning to pretend to be human, so even if she’s introduced, she’s not going to remember everyone unless they matter to the story, but it also feels like the town and world isn’t threadbare and to support Daphne’s quest. There’s a grumpy old man who is at the bakery for his discounted bread and mostly complains about everything, but he gets a quick line or two later while Daphne and Espy are performing for the town, lecturing Daphne their version of the song in question is passable but inferior. Lily runs into him briefly when she arrives in Shelkie’s Bay, and as of right now he’s still briefly whining and complaining.

The short of this, is that yes, I probably have too many characters from a strictly narrative POV, but I’m not going to worry because my focus when telling epics is to make it both plausible and fleshed out. I can always pull the episodic trick and do another spin off if I think something or someone needs to be fleshed out some more. It’s not the easiest thing to craft a story where so many people feel to be necessary, so the other short is don’t stress out if the story you want to tell feels above your skill level. Do this enough, you start to develop at least some ability in the craft to think it through.


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