Character Overload

And we're all pivotal to the plot

And we’re all pivotal to the plot

You’re at a party, and a guy comes up to you and shakes your hand. “Hi, I’m Bob,” he says, but before you can go deeper into a conversation with him a woman comes over. She introduces herself as Rachel, a veterinarian. Then Harry introduces himself, and before you can learn more about him three women walk up, Carla, Cheirie, and Lola. As they introduce themselves, you can’t even see Bob and Rachel any more.

Before Cheirie is finished telling you about her fashion line she’s working on for release in Spring she’s jostled aside by Carl and Zach, and then a woman called Elise grabs you by the hand and drags you over to the bar to introduce you to the wait staff and–

Burned out by all the names and faces yet?

It’s easy, particularly with epic fantasy, to have a lot of characters. Sometimes, particularly in opening scenes, you can write too many new characters in all at once, and you leave your reader with ‘character overload’: where they can’t remember who half the introduced cast is.

Worse than just confusing your reader, it can also lessen dramatic impact, because why do I care what happens to Lola or Carla when I barely got to see them? If they’re in mortal danger at the end of the party will I really notice or care?

To help with character overload there’s a couple of things to keep in mind.

First: Does the reader need to meet this person now? Is this character important to the plot of THIS particular scene? Are they necessary for the conflict? If they aren’t, add them later.

But they’re a main character you say? They need to be in the scene though they’ve no immediate effect on it because the reader simply must meet them. Let me disagree and give you an example you might know: In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Ron and Hermione don’t make their appearances until about a third of the way through the book.

Second: who do you remember best from the party? My guess is you probably remember Rachel the veterinarian and Cheirie the fashion designer, or Elise, who drags you around and introduces you to other people. Was I right? So why did they stick out? Because they had more to their character than just a name and a gender.

Fleshing out a character more can help. Maybe your story has an ensemble cast and you really do need those six people all in this one opening scene. So make them memorable. What do they look like, how can you show their personality and make them stick out of the crowd in the readers mind?

Using both of these techniques should help you with even the most epic of casts. It might not help much with the party though, maybe you should try to be less of a social butterfly.

About Kirstie Olley

Kirstie is the current President of Vision Writers, has had several short stories published since joining the group in 2012, has been a finalist in the Aurealis Awards and received multiple honourable mentions in the Writers Of The Future contest. She also blogs and has free fiction at her website http://www.storybookperfect.com/
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