How To Avoid Overpopulation, part 2

Yesterday, we left off with a stranger opening the door to our pretend character party. Strangers can be important in a story—or not. Looking at the function of a stranger is a good way to illustrate the point of this post.

With the exception of a regular cast in a series, each character is a stranger to the reader. It is the author’s job to pull off a stranger’s mask and reveal the interesting and engaging person inside.

The trick is deciding how much to reveal about characters without overloading the reader will unnecessary information. Who gets a name? Who gets a description? Who needs background? Who has tics and habits? Who performs a single function that could, possibly, be performed by someone else?

Overpopulating causes the reader extra work. Every character introduction takes up brain space. Every detail has to be stored. Every name processed. If a writer puts too much of that in the front of the story, it impedes the reader’s ability to make an emotional attachment to the primary character or situation. There’s too much extraneous stuff using up the reader’s brain power.

Think about it. At a party, if you stand before a round table of people who introduce themselves by name, how many of those names do you remember five minutes later?

When too many characters are thrown at a reader, it’s tough to tell which are the important ones, so all of them lose some measure of importance. The bigger the crowd, the harder it is to focus on an individual.

How does an author make judicious choices about a story’s population?  Here are some simple questions.

1 ~ What is this character’s function in the story?

2 ~ Can the plot move forward without this person’s involvement?

3 ~ Can someone else perform this function?

4 ~ How much page time or detail does this character require?

If the answer to #3 is yes, and the plot does not hinge on a particular character’s presence, the question becomes, keep or toss?

Any schmuck can open a door. If the schmuck does nothing else, he doesn’t need a name. If the schmuck is going to turn up in the wine cellar with a bottle of chardonnay imbedded in his right temple, maybe he should open the door with a smirk, or a nervous laugh, or call the new guest by the wrong name. In short, if the stranger is going to reappear in the story in a big way, remove some of his mask and start the revelation process. If the schmuck is going to disappear into the crowd, don’t bother describing him.

But what about the people in stories who make small appearances that move a a story along in some small way? Life is full of encounters by people we know by name but are not necessarily important to our lives, but add color and detail. Does the same apply to a story?

Yes, and no. If characters appear for local color, that’s fine. Learning about setting through a unique character certainly works. The lady who mans the counter of the fish market and wears crawfish claw earrings—she should get a name. It’s better if she’s friendly and sees everyone in town, so she probably knows all the dirt.

But the checkout girl who is blah and never engages anyone in chit chat? If all she does is perform a single, uninteresting function, does she need to be more than the checkout girl? Probably not.

Which leads to a problem solving question. If you suspect your story is character heavy, think about combining characters. Can crawfish claw earring lady also run the register at the fish market? One interesting character trumps two flat ones every time.

Last time, I asked a word problem type question about Daniel and the pharmacist. For folks who like mathy things, here’s a simple formula to help control your story population:

Character function + importance + interest = degree of detail.

It’s tough to depopulate a story, but if a character doesn’t add something memorable, strike them from the guest list.


Tomorrow’s topic: Sunday is a day of rest. Monday’s topic will be How To Run a Free Write

2 thoughts on “How To Avoid Overpopulation, part 2

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