Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Scope of the Story

Focusing a novel is a bit like poor Goldilocks struggling to find what’s neither too huge nor cramped but “just right.” Reviewing Scott Anderson’s biography of “Lawrence in Arabia” in “The Times Book Review,” Alex Von Tunzelmann had this to say: “Regardless of the relative historical value of these individuals, however, the multicharacter approach has the great virtue of opening up the story’s complexity.”

Few fiction readers consciously assess how much complexity they seek. But since most readers instinctively know, writers need to care. It’s the reason one likes an author or title enough to scan the opening online or in a store, yet rejects this one. The novel feels either like too much work or insufficient substance. Either boils down to “not worth my time.”

Several factors contribute to complexity. The point of view could be roving or omniscient. Maybe numerous subplots tangle up the story. Perhaps the sentences feel ridiculously short or long. The metaphors congregate like ants at a picnic. Or the cast of characters under- or over-whelms.

Tip: Use your cast of characters to give your novel “just enough” complexity.

Having too many characters resembles agonizing over who survived the aftermath of the hurricane on page one, but instead learning that little Tiffany, in room 478, has a cousin whose great-aunt passed when she was only ten, and perhaps because of that, there’s been a lot of divorce on that side of the family. In fact, Marcia, the step-daughter of the step-aunt’s fourth husband, is one of six children. Wait. Was Marcia in the storm’s path? Is she a major character? If not, why mention this?

Too many characters bloats the story badly enough to affect compassion for the characters we’re supposed to care about.

Yet a scarcity of characters builds a skewed world. In our dreams we’re often both protagonist and antagonist. In our memories or anecdotes, it’s a one-person show starring its originator. All of that’s kosher, because the goal isn’t constructing a completed story. When that’s the goal, however, you need enough characters to help the protagonist grow and change. Yet you don’t want so many characters that you blur what’s important.

How might you reach “just right”?

  • Introduce characters in terms of the protagonist—and usually protagonist stress.
  • Give every character a distinct voice and identity.
  • Watch for arcs. Unless every minor character has one, bring out the ax.
  • Use every character more than once. Cull those with bit parts.
  • Merge if possible. You’ll produce one strong character instead of two weak ones.
  • Assess complexity. Is this number of characters apt for the intended audience?

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