How To Avoid Overpopulation, Part 1

What is Overpopulation?

In a story, Overpopulation means there are too many characters; or it can mean too many characters are introduced at one time; or it can mean the prose is cluttered with unnecessary details about throwaway or stock characters.

Entering the world of a new story is like walking into a party. Maybe you are acquainted with the host (protagonist) and his/her spouse (sidekick/love interest) because you been to their home (read about them) before. Maybe they are new to you. For the sake of this post, let’s pretend you’re walking into a book party and you don’t know a soul.

Who greets you at the door and invites you inside? There are four possibilities:

  1. The host ~  At the book party, this would be the protagonist or main character (MC). The MC is your guide through the story. As a guest, you want to get to know your host, so you would notice this person’s speech, clothes and manners; you’d listen attentively to their anecdotes; you’d observe their interaction with other guests.
  2. A greeter ~ At a party-party, this would be a butler, doorman, or a relative assigned to the task; at our book party, this person would be a minor or secondary character who serves a function in the story. The function may be large or small. How much you learn about this person depends on how important their story task.
  3. A stranger ~ A random person who happens to be near the door when you ring the doorbell. In fiction, this would be a throwaway character: a character who performs a single function and leaves the story when that act is done. Do you need to know this person’s personal history if all they’re good for in the story is opening the door? Maybe. Maybe not.
  4. No one ~ There is no host, greeter or random stranger at the door. You walk right in, like an open house, and work the party using your own social skills.

Who does not answer the door at a party? A group of people, each of whom introduces him/herself to you and thus expects you to decipher a jumble of names and descriptions two steps inside the story door.

Have you ever read a story where the first chapter is so overloaded with names and character details, you feel like you’ve walked into a room full of strangers who are all babbling at you at once? This is a form of Overpopulation. Throwing too many characters at the reader just inside the door forces the reader to work extra hard. Why are you making your reader work so hard?

How do you keep from Overpopulating a story? Begin by considering the function of each character and how much the reader needs to learn about him/her/it.

With primary characters, it’s simple. The reader needs to know what this person looks like, what he does with his time each day, and a personal history. The reader needs enough background so there’s logic to why this person acts as he does. In short, we need a full dossier on the important people in the story.

Second, with minor or secondary characters, the reader needs to know enough to maintain story logic or make the plot work. Let’s say the MC’s neighbor is ex-military, which the author points out because the MC is often gone and the neighbor keeps an eye out on her place. Since the neighbor has an ongoing function in the story, let’s award him a name: Daniel. It’s helpful to see that Daniel keeps his high and tight haircut; to learn he goes running every morning; to know he keeps a loaded gun on his premises. It might be necessary to know Daniel suffered from PTSD; that he has screaming nightmares about his war experiences; that’s he’s wary of strangers and can be aggressive. Or, maybe Daniel’s background has given him a don’t-sweat-the-small stuff attitude. However much the author knows about Daniel, if none of this impacts the events of the story or drives the action, do we need to know so much about Daniel? This is the author’s choice, to decide if the guy next door is a nameless neighbor or our pal Daniel.

Third, let’s consider throwaway characters. Throwaway or stock characters are those folks who perform a single function in the story. Let’s take the young officer who delivers the bad news to the MC that the military guy next door has been found dead. If the officer is going to participate beyond this moment, he gets a name and physical description. We don’t need his life history, but it’s easier to remember Corporal Clark than “the officer who informed me of Daniel’s death.” On the flip side, if the pharmacist calls from the drug store to remind the MC her prescription’s been sitting in the basket for three days, and the purpose of that call is to get her out of the house so Daniel can sneak over and booby-trap her basement, do we need to know the name of the pharmacist?  This sounds like a word problem from math class, but the answer is no.

Fourth, the stranger at the door.

We’ll talk about him, her, or it, tomorrow. Stay tuned.


Tomorrow’s Topic: How To Avoid Overpopulation, Part 2

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