You like characters. I like characters. If we read, odds are good that most of us do it in no small part for the characters we’re reading about. For those of us who write, there’s the ever-present option to add more characters. That iridescent sentient beetle with a guitar? People will love how off-kilter he is! The talking dog? If people like dogs, they’ll love a wisecracking one! You see, all characters start as a single idea, and it’s easy for us to keep coming up with single ideas, which is how stories lose all sense of drive or coherence and turn into a bunch of disconnected introductions.
You’ve probably seen at least a few examples of this. A story starts out well enough- young Davey’s off to college for the first time, and his youthful optimism is up for a bit of a shock when he realizes how much more stringent the academic requirements at his chosen university are. Wait! Hold on. I need to have more names to throw around! Davey has a sister, let’s talk about her and her collection of Paleolithic handaxes. Now let’s talk about Davey’s sister’s boyfriend, who’s obsessed with Jackson Pollock and selling cocaine to afford an original piece. The boyfriend also has a family, let’s talk about them and their huge menagerie of unlikely pets- who’d of thought they’d have a Nile crocodile, huh? Who was our protagonist again? Where is any of this going? I don’t know. I’m not keeping track. I’m not even concerned about those three hundred pages of incoherent nothing you had to slog through to get this far! I’m too busy writing about the boyfriend’s aunt and her wacky antics with a stolen Mercedes-Benz in downtown Los Angeles. So what if she’s two dimensional? At least she’s having fun! Did you read that part? Where she drove straight through a Target’s pharmaceutical section and out through the front doors, ramped off a staircar and perforated a picture of Nicolas Cage eating fried chicken? Wasn’t that hilarious?! You probably don’t care at this point, and in fact you threw this book in the attic fifty pages ago when you realized the author was insane and none of the characters actually mattered.
I’ve said before that I think the term ‘character driven’ is overused (or if I haven’t, I’m saying it now) but a decent plot definitely needs good characters. A character who exists only to further the plot isn’t good, or even a character. I think we usually call them plot devices; it all sounds a bit like a Soviet metaphor for front-line conscripts, doesn’t it? Maybe? In any case, a reader has absolutely zero reason to keep reading about the actions that a bunch of nouns take when none of those nouns are people. Characters ground and inform action, characters give action meaning. If someone wants mindless action, that’s what Hollywood does best. DISCLAIMER: I have nothing against film and would absolutely agree that films are often very moving and significant. They’re just also really good at being meaningless and astoundingly violent. Please don’t sue me, I have kids. Hypothetically. So, anyone else noticing the irony here in a post about lack of direction having a lack of direction?
Regardless my blithering, this holds true: you can only have so many characters at once. A few of them will be major, the rest will be minor, but the length of a story has to restrict the amount of verbal real-estate dedicated to any one character. The protagonist(s) and friends thereof are, by definition, central to the plot, so they’re the ones we should spent the most time with. I understand the desire to write a sprawling story with a massive arsenal of memorable characters, but the truth is those personality-laden rounds can only number so many to a magazine (tortured firearm metaphor!) A writer who tries to insert too many characters is battling not only the size constraints of his/her own piece, but the very nature of human memory; we can only absorb a finite amount in a given period of time, and the more characters there are (even if they are well-written and fully three-dimensional) the less chance there is we’ll remember all of them. That in turn leads to mental whiplash when you turn the page to Chapter 9 and find that I’ve suddenly reverted to the viewpoint of the acid-tongued Inquisitor from the start of the novel- he’s ruthless, brutal and yet surprisingly charming, but you don’t remember him because I’ve thrown thirty other people at you since I introduced him, and that talking squirrel who is also a Druid tends to stick in the brain purely as a novelty. That’s a problem, because the Inquisitor is supposed to be the protagonist, and now you can’t engage in anything he’s doing because you don’t feel like you understand the man.
But in all honesty, the most likely outcome with having too many characters is that none of them get enough time in the limelight. You don’t learn to like any of them, you don’t remember any of them, and that means in turn that you won’t like or remember the story. The brain is usually very good at remembering large amounts of information when they’re all connected to each other; we remember best by making connections to what we already know. If I manage to write a bunch of characters who are even somewhat connected and you still can’t remember any of them, that shows pretty clearly that I goofed somewhere.
Ultimately the biggest, simplest problem is this: the term ‘story’ in and of itself implies the use of one or a few viewpoints selected from a multitude, often but not always the viewpoints of greatest importance. The more viewpoints there are, the less important they can all be (without shattering suspension of disbelief, anyway). While I got a little nuts in the second paragraph there (seriously? Shopping destruction? The Blues Brothers did it so much better!), I have noticed that any scenes I write out of context tend to spiral rapidly out of control. My guess is this comes simply from trying to recapture the imaginary reader’s interest by substituting high-octane (and low intellect) action for all the organic fun of well-written characters having some interaction with each other. To establish a character, you have to establish a backstory, and that backstory will have to set some rules about the world that it and the main plotline take place in. Once I have rules, I don’t break them unless it’s really useful. That in turn makes it easier for a reader to enjoy the story, because there are clear rules, and the human brain likes things to be neatly organized, stupid linear-functioning bundle of mind-meat that it is.
This was actually a post about human mental processing. GOTCHA!