Thursday, May 13, 2010

In defence of my characters

Jean Davis occasionally teases me about the cast list for Ghosts of Innocence. I had some discussion about this topic with some fellow writers, and it also got me to pondering questions about what factors drive a writer to include or cut characters.

Here are my thoughts, not based on any scientific evidence let alone any pretence at writing credentials.

The generally-received wisdom is to limit your characters to those essential to the plot. Wherever possible, avoid introducing new characters unnecessarily (can an existing character fulfill the same purpose?) and do all you can to avoid naming unimportant characters.

All this is sound advice. It is truth but, in my opinion, not the whole truth. I believe there are other factors that come into play. Here are some that I've teased out.

Required for the character

What would my point-of-view character be aware of?

Some people pick up names like iron filings to a magnet. From snippets of overheard conversations, from name badges on uniforms, office doors... they can't help but get the life history of anyone they meet in five seconds flat. Is my main character like that? If I'm deep in their point of view, then that should reflect what they would notice.

Or maybe the situation they're in surrounds them with information about the people they're dealing with. Information that they can't help but be aware of.

Or I may want to reveal something more subtle about the character. In a scene from Ghosts, Shayla sits down to a meal with her new colleagues. She is introduced to everyone around the table, then she points out that the introductions omitted some important people in the room: the catering staff. This exchange is intended to reveal something of Shayla, or at least, of the person she is trying to impersonate.

In these situations, names are needed. Names of people who are otherwise unimportant, who will probably not be seen again for the rest of the story.

Required for authenticity

"Shayla, let me introduce you to the Captain, the Science Officer, and here is Anonymous Cannon Fodder who'll be killed off in chapter three."

Doesn't quite ring true, does it?

Natural dialogue often includes names, and if you're trying to keep dialogue sounding natural you're likely to brush up against that from time to time. Sure, you can do your best to sidestep the issue, but I have no qualms about dropping otherwise unimportant names into the mix if: (a) it would be the natural thing to do at that point (for example, someone calling out to a friend or colleague) and (b) the piece of dialogue itself is important, or is the cleanest way to convey something important.

Helps the flow

More of a technical requirement. If I have a character who I refer to several times in a scene but who is otherwise unimportant, I will certainly apply the minimalist principle to the best of my ability. But sometimes it just gets downright clunky to keep referring to "the communications clerk", so once in a while I'll just say "what the heck" and give them a name in order to clean up the text.

In all these situations, I still seek to avoid introducing characters or names without good cause, but there is another important limiting principle too: would my main character be reasonably expected to know their name? This is especially important in the last example. No matter how clunky the text may get, if I can't reasonably expect my character to know who that person is, then they will remain forever anonymous.

Builds the right atmosphere

I left this till last because it likely needs the most discussion.

What kind of setting and atmosphere am I trying to build here?

Pick up a few books and study them. Some stories are populous, some less so. Whether by design or by accident I think that says something about the world the characters inhabit. I've picked on a few categories here to explore this further...

Richly populated: To further the discussion in my writing group, I checked out the first of the Harry Potter books. I remember them as depicting a rich and highly populous world. I was not disappointed. I counted no fewer than fifty three named individuals before Harry had even set foot inside Hogwarts, and I knew there were plenty more to come. Many are "throwaways" of the kind I talked about earlier, but to me that is an essential part of building a richly social world.

Just to be clear about how I'm counting here, I'm including every name, even "characters" like the weatherman Jim McGuffin, and Ted the newsreader, Mrs. Figg, Petunia's friends Marge and Yvonne, and Dudley's gang, Piers, Dennis, Malcolm, and Gordon. My original post here was about the difficulty coming up with names. That still applies even for a throwaway name.

This clearly contravenes the rule about only naming important characters, but it does give the setting a very familiar and homely feel. It mirrors most peoples' experience, of being surrounded by circles of ever-more distant acquaintances.

Sparse: The other end of the spectrum. Some stories have only a few key characters. Some even only one or two. Adventurers in the wilderness are not likely to run into many people.

Socially isolated: The main character inhabits a populous world but is isolated from it. One way to show that isolation is to surround them with people, but keep them firmly anonymous. Sometimes the loneliest place in the world is in the middle of a crowd.

Another twist on that theme, I checked out the first book in the Ramses series. I thought that this too would be highly populated. It is, but for the most part only the central characters are actually named. As I skimmed the story, I realised that this gave me a strong impression of social segregation. Many of the individuals we meet, outside of Ramses' family and immediate friends (and significant adversaries), are kept firmly in their place by their anonymity.

This latter story is, in fact, a good example of the rule to only name the important characters. And I think it is a good example of the effects, intentional or otherwise, that applying this rule can have. In the case of the Ramses books I think it is perfectly appropriate. But that may not always be the case.

A learning point for me, here. Don't blindly apply a rule just because people are fond of quoting it. Think about how to use it. Think of how it will affect the writing. Remember - the only rule in writing is that there are no rules.

So, with a count of eighty named characters in my cast, was I really over the top?

Expressing my aims in the terms I've discussed here, I wanted to build a rich and populous world. In part, when Shayla infiltrated the Imperial hierarchy I wanted to try to recreate some sense of the bewilderment I felt when I first joined the BC public service. More importantly, I didn't want isolation for Shayla. Bringing her closer to all these people, bringing them out from the cloak of anonymity, was one way to show a growing intimacy with the world she was setting out to destroy. An intimacy that was to become her undoing, but ultimately her salvation.

I cast myself on the mercy of the court.


  1. Sounds like you've thought your reasoning through. If you want her overwhelmed with people, those made more intimate by name that she then must make some major character/plot choice over, then naming them serves a greater purpose. As long as the reader isn't expected to remember them all. :)

    Creating a particular atmosphere is also a good reason.

    Everyone's story is a little different. Mine happened to be overpopulated. The extraneous characters got in the way of the plot. Not to mention, contributed to a massive word count. Which is why I often focus on cutting back. Not to say that everyone should.

    As far as introducing a table full of people that we don't really need their names other than to prove the point that a character doesn't think the unnamed ones are important, I would approach it like this:

    Mr. Man introduced the eight officers sitting around the table, listing the titles, duties and accomplishments of each.

    I almost want to name someone Cannon Fodder now, just because. :)

  2. Hi Jean. First off, I was only teasing about the teasing of course. But I'm sure you knew that :-)

    I think you credit me with rather more reasoning than I felt at the time. This is entirely post-facto rationalisation of what I was only doing instinctively, but I'm glad you made me think about it.

    And not only is everyone's story different, but everyone's approach to writing is individual too. The need to cut back on a massive word count seems to be a common complaint. I know my first attempt at a novel suffers badly from that. But for this one I think I started quite lean. I deliberately tried to err on the side of limiting information, and have had to add stuff in as critters noted things that needed more set-up or explanation. I guess I'm just an awkward customer.

  3. My first novel is my blog fodder, so filled with blunders and learning experiences of every sort. The rest of my novels suffer from the lean issue. I think I'm gun shy. I really have to work to get enough description and explaination in now.

    And yes, I knew you were teasing and I'm glad you knew I was teasing too. :D

  4. I get what you mean about gun shy. I briefly resurrected my first novel - 70k words and only half finished - with a view to tidying it up. I still like the story, but before I reached the end of chapter one I began to realise it's harder to trim than to add. So I guess I will be cautious about that in future.

    In the case of Ghosts, though, the lean issue was actually a matter of conscious choice. I don't want people to be too clear at first on who's good and who's bad, or even all the factions at play. The reveal of information is important. Too much too quickly will spoil it. But I've never done anything like this before, so I'm feeling my way and trying to err on the side of obscurity. I think it's easier for critters to say "I didn't get that" than to identify surplus information.

    BTW, I think you could reasonably have a religious character called Canon Fodder.


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