I spotted a forum comment recently, suggesting novels should limit to nine characters or the reader may not cope. A huge assumption about the capacity of readers, which also binds the writer! (And why nine? Somewhat arbitrary…) Try telling George RR Martin to reduce Game of Thrones to nine characters. Trying telling me that I didn’t enjoy his multitude (or couldn’t cope) – and what of the witty Jilly Cooper with her cheeky social satires, such as Riders and the subsequent Rivals? Her wide mix of characters, and salacious penmanship, hysterically depict the upper classes. Inspiration surrounds us.
So, first rule of this post?…No rules. Other than basic grammar, writers need tools not rules.
From battles with my own fictional crowds, here are my top five tips should your characters keep reproducing like Russian dolls:
Toolkit item 1: Think theatrically
Having written large cast musicals, theatre formats now assist me during book development:
- Imagine your story has only two hours playing time – it forces you to see it in overview.
- Create a cast list in order of importance to determine focus. I have to constantly remind myself that a cameo is a cameo is a cameo…
- Once you know the story arc, block it into playing scenes (grouping chapters if necessary), then map in the characters and examine. Do you lose sight of characters that need to be kept in view? When should characters converge or go solo to support the peaks?
Toolkit item 2: Think telescope
Regardless of the number of characters, let your reader view through a ‘telescope’. The telescope being a selected character, who sometimes presents what they see at a distance and sometimes in close detail. This is a great tool for visualising who holds the primary viewpoint. The telescope can be passed between characters if you wish, but make this clear, eg separate through text breaks or chapters.
Toolkit item 3: Think in groups
Even with limited characters, the action may require a crowd scene. A sudden list of intros can confuse, but a faceless throng may not be enough. A quick way to build an ensemble is to present people as groups, eg the neighbours… an airport queue… Sally’s workmates, etc. Add detail like an impressionist painter – there is no need to do more than necessary to evoke the atmosphere, which leaves you (and the reader), to concentrate on the voices you really want heard.
Toolkit item 4: Think recognition
Names enable the reader to assimilate what is happening to whom. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Yet it’s easy to get carried away on names that ‘feel’ right. In my debut novel The Treeman, I have two brothers called Jay and Jules and two friends called Maeve and Mari. Two J’s and two M’s. No real harm done, but would I go back in time to make more distinct? Yes. Would I amend these now, after publication? Of course not. The characters have become real and would be enraged if I changed their monikers. I couldn’t take the guilt! And my readers would be very confused with the sequel.
Toolkit item 5: Think cause and effect
They’ll get their moment…and if that moment never comes? Well, you are the creator of worlds. Who knows when a discarded character may need resurrecting to a better purpose?
Finally, take a bonus tip directly from Jilly Cooper and George RR Martin. Add a character list to your book. With large casts it can help define families, opposing forces and more. But don’t depend on this – it can help as a checklist, but clarity should be within the text.
Above all, write with your heart. If it’s bursting with characters who have a deserved place in your fictional world – and you feel confident you can maintain crowd control – then ignore the edict of nine. Be rebellious and brave and let them breathe.
You may sleep better at night if you do.