In life, we are constantly surrounded by other people. Lots and LOTS of other people. The people we work with, the people we go to school with, the people we party with, our friends, our family… they’re everywhere. But there’s no way to focus on ALL of them. Nor should we try to.
When putting your story together, the one thing that you should remember is that the more characters you have, the more complex your story is going to be. If you don’t want to complicate things for yourself, find a way to narrow them down to a number that you can manage. Use only the characters that will ultimately help your main character grow and change and take the journey that you want him/her to take.
In a lot of my stories, people have told me that the parents are lacking and are almost never involved in their children’s lives. That they seem oblivious or neglectful. But for those particular stories, it’s not that they’re absent, they’re just not a part of the story’s focus. For stories like “New Kid In School”, “Dream Lover”, “Billy Chase”, or “Save Or Sacrifice”… it’s not like they don’t have parents, they’re just not necessary for that storyline. Not in any large role, anyway. Having the parents ‘forced’ into the story would be more of a distraction than anything else, or just added fluff for the sake of having them around. Those storylines are more concentrated on the relationships between the few teen characters needed to bring the story from point A to point B. And that’s it.
However, for stories like “My Only Escape”, “Kiss Of An Angel”, or “Savage Moon”… those parental relationships and interactions are an important part of the storytelling. In “A Class By Himself”, for example, Derrick’s relationship with his mother is a major part of the story that I’m trying to tell. Without her, a lot of the story would lose its emotional impact. She NEEDS to be there. I think it’s important to make sure that every character has a distinct reason to be there, parents included. They’re not just pushed into the story so readers can say, ‘Ok, there are caring parents present in the house’. I’d rather just have them assume that’s the case.
So when you’re plotting out your project, and you have a list of characters in place… look at all of them and ask yourself what impact each one is going to have on your main character and the major theme of your story. Ask yourself, “If I took this person out of my story completely… would he be missed?” If the answer is no, then get rid of him. Unless there’s some part of your story that can’t be told without him, then don’t use him.
What you need to understand is that every time you introduce a new character into your story, your readers mentally ‘mark’ them as being important. Especially if you took the time to give them a name. So if you introduce 20 different characters by name in the first chapter, your readers will instantly get overloaded. All of those people don’t need to be there. Narrow it down to 10 (if not 5) strong characters instead and work to just concentrate on them. Do whatever you have to do. Erase characters, combine characters, whatever. Unless ‘Aunt Frannie’ has a specific role to play in the life of your main character, don’t bother introducing her. Don’t give her any dialogue, don’t describe what she looks like, don’t even give her a name if she’s not going to be a part of your story’s focus. Keep it simple. Always keep it simple.
Now, if you do decide to go for a bigger ensemble cast, like a “Gone From Daylight” or a “Billy Chase”, then there are two things to keep in mind…
First… don’t have all of them together at once if you can help it. That can be confusing, especially where dialogue is concerned. This takes a little extra planning on your part, but it gets easier with some practice. Pick your scenes. Think about what you want to do with a certain part of the story, and focus your attention on the FEW people needed to make that scene happen. Then move on to the next scene and change characters up as many times as you like. But think of each scene as a mini story all its own. If Justin and Taryn are having a conversation, and they’re the only two people needed for that particular scene (Even if they’re hanging out with the entire crew from the lot), push everybody else into the background. Get rid of them. Send them off somewhere and let these two characters share that moment alone. Don’t worry, you can bring them back later. Hehehe! But for now, you need to focus. Like in any situation in real life, ten people talking at once are hard to absorb. Again, keep it simple.
And second, let the characters build slowly over time. Little by little, and one at a time. If you introduce your whole cast of characters at once, then describe what they look like, then give them first and last names, and then go into each and every one of their back stories, all at the same time, it will come off like a lecture before a major exam. It can be overwhelming to a reader. Like I said, plan your scenes out ahead of time. Spread it out. For one particular scene, describe one major character (The love interest, or the best friend, or the grandmother. Whoever is more immediately important to the plot). Let the reader get to know him/her to a point where they become memorable. Then, in a later scene, take another important character (Because they should ALL be important. Remember?) and go a little further into describing that personality and personal history to introduce them with a little more depth and background. Take your time. The characters can be there, but give yourself an opportunity to develop them a little bit at a time. It will make the read a lot less stressful, and it will give your audience time to truly take in all of the little intricacies without getting overwhelmed by the details.
Whatever it is that you’re writing, just think of it as watching a play or a concert on stage. When it’s one person on stage, it’s easy for them to hold your attention. Add another person, it’s still pretty easy. Add three more, and you start to look from one person to another instead of just looking at what’s important. Add another 12, and the stage starts to get crowded. Add another 25 people, and it’s so confusing that you have no idea who is who or where you should be focusing your attention and it becomes a great big mess. Use your personal ‘spotlight’. Focus only on what’s necessary. Nothing else. And if someone doesn’t need to be there, tell them to take a hike. Even if it’s caring parents, teachers, random friends/acquaintances at school… whatever. Lose them. Cool?
Happy writing folks! This has been “Comsie Talks”, and I hope this helps you all create something awesome! 🙂