Friday, 27 June 2008

Friday Tea Break.


I've read numerous books on writing that suggest you only use one or two major characters. I'm inclined to agree, but find that my 'cast' generally extends to about half a dozen solid main characters that I flit between to show parts of the story.

Other authors fly in the face of that and shower you with names in the first chapter. I recently read When We Were Bad by Charlotte Mendelson and felt as if I were suffocating under the myriad of sisters, uncles, uncle's wives and second-cousins that she parades in the opening chapter. Similarly, Wooden Womb Man by Elizabeth O'Neill paraded few characters but they had such ridiculous, contrived names that my suspension of disbelief turned into a sneer of disgust at being taken for a ninny.

I generally give each protagonist or antagonist a chapter to themselves. I think I learned this method from Iain Banks, way back when.

How do you deal with it? Do you have one or two protagonists or a multitude? Do you introduce them slowly like vegetables from the grocer's or in one great stew of an opening chapter?


photo is Rita Tushingham

26 comments:

Zinnia Cyclamen said...

Interesting question. I know what you mean about 'When We Were Bad', although it didn't worry me as the suffocatingness of the central family was such a key theme of the book. In my current WIP there are four central characters who are introduced one by one, as are the four or five second most important characters, then there are lots of minor characters in subplots who only appear for a chapter or two. But I didn't learn any kind of method for that, it's just the way it turned out. After reading your post, I might think it through a bit more next time!

Apologies to all Novel Racers that I haven't been doing the comment rounds recently - I'll get back to it as soon as I can, but life is quite manic at the moment (good manic, but still manic!).

Caroline said...

In my current wip, I have one main and seven minor - each with a voice. I'm trying to layer and introduce slowly, but it's hard and I think I'm getting a bit too stressy about it. The story is a journey, so the characters enter/leave at different stages.

So for the next week (I will finish very very soon) (I will I will I will), I am just going to write and then go back to craft it all and worry, later.

I think that, sometimes, writers think too much!

xxx

Crystal Jigsaw said...

My current WIP has one main character as the story is written in the first person. There are one or two other characters which the reader gets to know quite well but that is obviously through my main character. But many of the other characters are spirits who we only get to know briefly.

CJ xx

Lane said...

I have one main character. There are other 'big' characters but so far they haven't eclipsed the protagonist. I think in all, there are less than 20 named characters in the whole wip.

On the whole I don't like too many named characters unless they each bring something to the story. I haven't read the books you mention (yet) but too many characters can be irritating if not confusing.

Is that A Taste of Honey?? Great film:-)

Clare Sudbery said...

My first novel: Two main protagonists, two or three other main characters, hardly any minor. My second: Again, two main protagonists, four or five other significant characters, no minors. My third: One main protagonist, three other significant characters, a couple of minor bit parts.

I tend to focus on a handful of people overall - 5 or 6 seems to work for me - with one or two of them rising above the rest. In the first two books I started out with more people and decided it was just too confusing / they were distracting from each other, so I got rid of some characters and collapsed pairs of characters into one - which can have the satisfying effect of converting two rather boring 2D people into one more interesting 3D person.

I try and introduce them as gradually as possible - I spent a lot of time in rewrites of my 2nd book rearranging how the characters are introduced - partly spreading their appearance out more in first few chapters, but also in one case bringing a couple of characters in earlier, as they were v. significant to the plot and I felt they arrived too late.

JJ said...

Hmmm I worry a lot about this (I worry a lot about everything!) so I'm really interested in everyone's replies. In the end I've had to stop worrying and use the number I need. My main character is the only POV and there are about seven major named characters - two are dead, but they are people we get to know through the experience of others.

I hate it as a reader not knowing who is who, but will tolerate it if the writer reminds us gently and subtly.

Right now, I'm off to do my 100 words or I'm not allowed out to play at the cinema!

A good weekend to all.

ChrisH said...

Yes, very thought provoking. Um, I enjoy working with a cast of characters but take your point about how off-putting this can be and for that reason I try to introduce them slowly - the whole stew can be a bit much!

I apologise for the lack of visits, I plan to do more.

Debs said...

Good question and something that does concern me.

The book I'm working on now has two main characters and several minor characters and because I was told with my last book that I introduced too many people all at once, I am trying to be careful not to do this again.

I have made big changes to the previous one and I think it reads much better now, but this is something that I struggle with.

I hate reading a book where I have to go back every few pages to work out who is who.

Like JJ I now have to go and do my 100 words.

CC Devine said...

My first few drafts had a cast of thousands and it got to the stage where I had to really cut back because beta readers were getting confused and questioning the point of particular characters.

I now have three main characters and various minor characters. I focus on one character per chapter in order to avoid too much jumping around.

Rowan Coleman said...

The nearest I've come to an ensemble cast of characters was in THE BABY GROUP where there were six main characters - but in general I told it from the POV of one character and flitted in and out of the heads of the other during their relevant chapters. I THINK it worked out, but it was a challenge. I always really enjoy writing secondary characters and they usually end up building their parts to a near starring role - what this says about me I don't know. Perhaps I should write a book feauturing only secondary characters, a bit like the novel version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstein are Dead.....

Graeme K Talboys said...

I always try to stick to a small group of characters, with just one central figure carrying the load of the story. My w-i-p does have a fairly large cast of minor characters, but they always stay on the periphery, colourful background rather than moving the story forward. Some of them will become prominent in the sequel, so it is important to establish them now. However, there is a single central character and just a handful of secondary characters. The story can be told through them.

I think introductions need to be done slowly as well, even if all the characters are there from the start. It's like building up layers. Each character may have a single distinguishing feature to begin with that acts as a prompt to the reader, but as time goes on layers are added and we learn more about each of these people, just as we do in real life.

Narratives that screech to a halt to give four pages of physical description and another six of psychological profile before picking up the action again leave me dead. I can never remember all that stuff and often find that the story gives me a different impression of the character. We each build our own interpretation of a person based on how they behave. Our assumptions are often wrong, but I think readers should also be allowed that freedom (which can also be a useful device for introducing twists - a character may present a certain face that has two valid interpretations, one of which you can keep hidden until it is time to turn things around).

Clare Sudbery said...

I too get annoyed when there are too many characters and I can't remember who's who. Another thing I do to try and avoid this is to give each character a very distinctive characteristic - physical or character-based - that can be subtly referred to whenever they re-enter the action. Distinctive names also help with this. And individual speech patterns.

"Narratives that screech to a halt to give four pages of physical description and another six of psychological profile before picking up the action again leave me dead."

Yeah, me too. Anyway, it's always better to show not tell. Don't tell the reader your character is nosey or insecure or psychotic or whatever - you don't need to mention it at all if you prove it in the things they do. Try to give each character an opening scene which displays their most salient characteristics to best advantage, through action rather than description.

Some useful stuff Robert McKee has to say about characters: Design your whole cast with thought to how they interact. If possible, no two characters should agree. Create tension between them, which also helps to distinguish them. Also create relationships between them which show up their important features - so, give the selfish person to the self-effacing person and make them interact in a way which shows up these important traits. It sounds very sensible but can make your head spin when you try and look at the whole cast in this way, so don't get too hung up about it!

Another thing he says is that proper real people are always contradictory. Give them desires which contradict their actions, or make them un-self-aware, or whatever.

And the last piece of Robert McKee advice I like is that you find out a person's true deep character via conflict. So, they may turn out to be a rank coward and not so strong after all, when put under pressure. Or vice versa. But you can use monments of high tension to let the reader know what the character is *really* like.

Fiona said...

As I am now trying to weed out characters who don't add very much to my plots, this is an interesting question.

I have three protagonists which means they all have friends and lovers but I want to keep my cast fairly small. Too many and I'd forget what traits I'd given them and, I suspect, drive the reader mad.

Kate.Kingsley said...

Phew ~ I’m so glad I’m not the only one who gets confused by books with too many characters in them!

For the current WIP I have one central protagonist (as it’s a first person narration) but with around four or five key people around them, so its not too relentlessly single-person-centic. I think I would struggle to juggle several protagonists at once, certainly with the lack of writing experience I have ~ maybe after I’ve mastered manipulating one viewpoint over 100,000 words I’ll be brave enough to try weaving a few together, but I’m just too green at this point!

Calistro said...

Because both of my novels are written in the 1st person POV there's one main character.

Novel #1 has 5 other important characters (important to the MC's life anyway) and a handful of minor characters. Oooh, that sounds like quite a lot doesn't it but it didn't feel like a lot to me when I wrote it because, in each chapter, the MC would rarely interact with more than 2 supporting characters at one time.

Novel #2 has one main character, and five supporting characters (there's a co-incidence!) and, again, a handful of supporting characters.

Hopefully neither book is confusing in terms of characters because you're always in the main characters head and you follow her journey through the book as opposed to multiple character's journeys.

Flowerpot said...

Looking at mine, the last two novels have both had three main characters. The one I'm revising for an agent has a triangular relationship: one woman and two men. The one I've just finished first draft of has the story of one man and his affair with a woman as told to a younger woman who comes into his life. In both instances, the characters are introduced gradually, but both are written from first person POV so you know whose story it is. I hope!

Arlyle said...

In my first unpublished novel, I have about 10 interesting characters. Each one is introduced in their own chapter. The chapters stand alone, and judging by the comments from beta-readers, each one is compelling.

Multiple characters, IMHO, keeps the reader on edge about what is going to happen to each one.

When there are only two main characters, you can expect a lot of filler.

DK Leather said...

fascinating question wyfe!

Since both my books are autobiographical (the one my personal life and the other the leather family life), naturally they're written from my own POV and contain the myriad of characters surrounding me during my life. Having read this, I'm hoping it'll not be simply too many people for others to comprehend who's who!

Have to try my hand at fiction again, see how I fare with that character-wise. It's probably horribly narcissistic but I suspect even then my main character (from what I recall from writing I used to do) is loosely based around myself! ~chuckle~

Leatherdykeuk said...

Zinnia - I think you can have twenty or thirty characters if you introduce them slowly.

Caroline - Looking forward to that. I'm impressed at you giving seperate voices to eight characters. Incidentally, 47 is the correct number for a collection, i think you'll find.

Crystal - You have no idea how much I am looking forward to seeing yours in print.

Lane - I wish i could stick to one character. It was 'A Taste of Honey' -- an off-set tea break.

Clare - That sounds like a good number. I should reduce the number I use, I think.

JJ - "Using the number you need" is, I think, the best advice of all.

Chrish - Introducing slowly is the key, I think.

Debs - I hate those sorts of books, too. I have such a big 'to be read' pile that I give up at chapter 3. Life's too short.

CC - Three is a great number.

Rowan - That's what happens to me! Secondary characters gain an importance almost equal to the protagonist.

Graeme - Good call about characters acting in... well... character.

Clare s - Another good point. I read that a good character is one you've put up an apple tree and thrown rocks at.

fiona - ..."and a cast of thousands". This is why I'll never write a biography.

KK - Good choice. I wrote a Biblical novel once but there were 14,000 supporting characters. It's unprintable.

Calistro - I think the 1st person POV will let you use more characters than a third person POV would.

flowerpot - That sounds tidy. Well done you!

arlyle - Clever! The trick is to then weave the ten together. I'd be hopeless at that. I disagree with the idea that two characters would produce a lot of filler, though.

Leatherdykeuk said...

DK: See my note to fiona *chuckle* There are too many people here, but as I said to Calistro, the 1st person POV will carry you through a lot of potential pitfalls.

Captain Black said...

Another great topic. Thanks LDUK. If it wasn't for all you good NRs out there, I wouldn't get to hear about these things. Oh dear, oh dear, my novel may be in a bit of trouble...

I do make a distinction between main characters and "bit parts". The problem is, I still have far too many main characters. This, coupled with my head-jumping lazy multiple-POV means that I have a lot of work to do!

Having said that, I do try to introduce the characters in a reasonable time, and not bombard the reader with them all at once. Having a single main character is simply not possible for my main project, since the plot is too far-reaching and complex. I do think I could hone them down a bit though.

Total number of named characters: 46 (crikey), though some are "named bit parts". I reckon 11 of these count as main characters. Oh well (buries head in sand), I'll just get on with telling the story for now.

L-Plate Author said...

Hiya everyone.

In book one I have three major characters, four as-I-call-them major minors and a handful of minors that I use to move the story forward but don't go into detail with.

In book two I have two main characters, three major minor characters and again a handful of minor characters.

Book three started off with three main characters but one bossy mare keeps pushing herself forward so I'm not sure about her yet.

I interweave them scene by scene taking one character's point of view until the next scene starts. It's tough sometimes, especially when it comes to editing - changing a story line can mean trouble with time lines but it's all a challenge. I really enjoy it...whether it works for other people is a joy I've yet to know. x

Lucy Diamond said...

Aarrrghhh, just got in knackered after a day in lovely Legoland (inset day at school)...
What were we talking about again? Ahh yes.
I've gone for three main characters and their separate plot lines for Novel 3 - which is a bit of a breakaway for me (usually a one-p.o.v. girl), and I'm finding it quite tricksy I have to say. Still, I broke through the 80,000 word barrier this week...that feels a good milestone!

Helen Shearer said...

Forgive me for being terribly late again. My internet service has been down since Friday morning.

My current wip has one main character, four or five secondaries (my main character's friends and family members) and a slew of named and unnamed bit parts. I think the bit parts are necessary to flesh out the story, and so far the few people who have read it have been able to keep who's who clear. Although I think readers can just tell who they need to remember and who they can forget. I try not to use more than one protagonist so that the voice stays true. Maybe when I'm better at this writing business I'll tackle something more complex.

Right now I'm reading This Charming Man, the new one by Marian Keyes, and she uses four main characters, four POVs, four distinct fonts. There are many bit characters, but because of the four distinct voices and specific character references, it's easy to remember who's who. Wendy Holden's books are full of characters too but they are so colourful that there's never any doubt who's who.

Have a great week everyone!

Leigh said...

I have about three main characters (with one obvious mc), half a dozen supporting cast, and a number of hangers on. This is a lot fewer than I started with, but I have cut and merged as much as I think is possible now without losing depth and colour. I hope.

watching9987 said...

I'm easily confused, so I've kept mine down a bare minimum. Of course it helps that my single main character is wholly self absorbed so I can ignore people at will and only have to name people who are absolutey bloody necessary. Or who have comedy names. Like Benny Nipple. Who, by the way, is not a character in my WIP (nice accronym, very catch, and also something to beat myself with later - gettit? Beat? No? Ok) but is included purely because it made me giggle.

By the way, another great recommended to me by Google Reader.

PS: Hehe - Benny Nipple.