In the last blog, I discussed creating characters and letting them find their own stories. In this blog, I’ll talk about how to populate your plot with characters. Or rather, I’ll talk about minimizing and maximizing the number of characters it takes to tell your story.
I recently read a murder mystery where there were eight potential culprits. That’s not so bad, as the story placed them all together most of the time and the author described them just enough to provide a picture of the group and its dynamics. The problem was that the protagonist had a habit of providing nicknames for everyone she encountered to help herself remember names (I won’t discuss the contradictory nature of that; I think you can see it without my help).
First off, no matter how cute the epithet, most people don’t appreciate being secretly called by a name that refers to their appearance or their personality. Epithets buttonhole and stereotype people and if you find out about it, there’s no way to argue the accuracy of these names, even if they’re endearing. I’m not against having a personal nickname for one particular person—an ex-spouse or a boss or a loved one or some such—so long as more than one character uses it, the epitheter (is that a word?) says it to the face of the epithetized (is that a word?) and readers are not meant to feel sympathy for the epithized (is that a word?) individual. Did you get that? Let me paraphrase it to be sure: the epithet gets hung around the neck of a character whom the audience is not supposed to like.
Consider the situation of the eight potential culprits. Doubling their number with nicknames leaves the poor reader with sixteen names to track, not counting the non-potential culprit characters. There were in all, about twenty-five character names for readers to track. I put the book down for a couple of days, read something else in the interim, and had difficulty picking the storyline back up because the only character I could identify easily was the protagonist.
So how many is too many? That's a tough call (although I'm sure that 25 is too many). What if your plot takes place at a conference or in a big family or something, and you need to give your readers a sense of the general chaos?
The answers is, of course, to simplify and rebuild. Run your characters through a sieve, so that only the ones who form the kernel of your story remain. If you’re basing your story on a real place or circumstance, you might have trouble deciding who gets a name and a personality and who doesn’t, so let’s look at it.
Okay, you know you have to have a protagonist (the person all the events happen to or the person telling the story), and most likely you need an antagonist (sometimes it’s not another person—it can be an obstacle to overcome) to create the tension that needs resolving and justifies the words on the page. That’s two characters.
You can leave your protagonist alone in the world with the antagonist, or you can provide a friend/boss/family. The same goes for your antagonist. These additional but less essential folks are called secondary characters. The trick is in eliminating as many secondary characters as possible.
Here’s an example. Say you’ve got a murderer, a sleuth, and a supply of office workers who might be the perpetrators or possibly the next victim. Let’s assume for the sake of simplicity that the sleuth already knows all the characters because he works with the victim and the office workers.
In my imaginary cubicle row, there are twelve people, six on each side. One has been murdered and another is the sleuth, so that leaves ten potential culprits. Ten seems like a lot of people to keep track of, so even if you haven’t decided which of them will be the murderous mastermind at the onset, you still have to whittle down the sheer number of names and personalities. Ask yourself a few questions about each of them and see what happens.
First, are there any quiet characters or those who keep to themselves and who don’t leap out as the murderous character? Is there any chance you could lump some of these together? You don’t necessarily need to literally combine these characters—although that’s an excellent solution—but you could mention them as a unit every time they crop up: Stella and Robin, or Colby, Theresa, and John. Their personalities and appearances won’t get any attention at all, but they won’t completely disappear. Or maybe there are two characters that are always seen in noisy groups—Kate and Cynthia, or Henrik, Roger, and Faith—that you could give the same treatment. Pairs could easily conspire or witness something together, so doing this might create an interesting challenge. Your protagonist might have to pry them apart with a pointy stick just to see how their stories differ.
Another way to whittle down the forces is to narrow the number of people who speak. You might find during your revision that only two people are truly necessary during a key conversation. It’s possible that other people are present—silently or nearly so—and only those with speaking parts count in your character headcount. If you can eliminate comments from the others or attribute their comments to a key character, you're on your way to cutting the newly silent from your character count. Once you’ve eliminated the extra people from your dialog, go looking through the rest of the story and see if you can completely eliminate those characters who no longer have or need a speaking role. You could think of it in terms of television casting: if they don’t speak, they don’t get paid as much. If they don’t speak, they can be “Girl #1” or “Waiter.” They don’t need a name AND they could easily be eliminated from the payroll—er, from the story altogether. It’s a budgeting concern. Keep “laying off” your characters until you've got a core essential group.
Another plan is to build the story in the other direction: from the least number of characters, slowly add relevant characters to the headcount. You need a protagonist or narrator and an antagonist or obstacle because two is the least number of characters. Then add your peripheral characters, the befuddling ones whose sole purpose is to mask the resolution of the story from the readers throughout the telling of the tale, one by one. Add them as carefully as a fine chef seasoning the broth. Too much is irreparable and not enough is bland.
The exercise I described in a previous blog about trying each of the characters as the narrator of the tale might also work to find out who is essential and who is expendable. If your narrator is either extremely emotional or extremely objective, you’ll exhaust your readers or bore them to death. The emotionally invested characters can stay in some secondary role and the dull ones can evaporate. Don’t you wish you could evaporate real-life dull people?
Once you’ve got your stage set and populated, remember: this is fiction and you can always add more characters if you need them. But it’s best to start from the smallest number and add on.