Friday, July 6, 2018

How many characters are enough? by Susan Oleksiw

A few weeks ago I began work on what I thought would be a novella. The idea had been floating around in my head, drifting into view when I was looking for something to read in the library, balancing my checkbook, or opening the mail. That's how I knew it was a good idea, and decided to work on it as soon as I finished the edits of my next book.

The story went along well, probably because I'd had a lot of time to think about it and let it germinate. As the story progressed I jotted down notes as I went along, keeping track of new characters and events in each chapter. This week, when I scanned the list of them prior to writing the next scene, I wondered, did I have too many? How many is too many?

During revisions of some of my books I've combined characters, dropped others along with an entire scene or chapter, and generally streamlined everything. I wondered if I'd do that this time. But now that I'd raised the question, it kept coming back to me. How many was too many? 

In the Mellingham series featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva, I included a list of characters, which I continued for five additional books and then omitted from the seventh one. I don't recall my thinking and may have to revisit that decision. There are no lists in the Anita Ray books. Curious about the number, I counted characters in the Mellingham books.

In the first, Murder in Mellingham, I list seventeen characters, including Chief Silva and hint at more in the catch-all "and other residents of and visitors to the town of Mellingham." Yes, I was at the time heavily influenced by British mysteries, which up to the 1970s and sometimes beyond presented the reader with lists of characters, maps of villages, and even warnings about the accuracy of the chosen method of murder or its circumstances.  

In the novella that got me thinking about this, I have fourteen characters so far, and since I'm about halfway through, that will probably be the total. I avoid introducing people late in the narrative, unless this is a minor figure who barely deserves a name. Bringing someone onstage past the middle seems unfair to the reader in my view. So, I have fourteen. Murder in Mellingham had seventeen, and I'm sure the first Anita Ray, Under the Eye of Kali, had at least that. In the first book in a new series, Below the Tree Line (coming in September), I have twenty-three individuals plus a number of animals. So, too many? Not enough? Just right?

I keep the list readily at hand, and will soon transfer each character to a notecard. Some will fade and become less and less important as the story nears its end, and I may fold one or two into a single person, or drop one or both altogether. So far I haven't made the mistake of giving everyone a name beginning with the same letter. (I made that mistake and didn't notice until an editor pointed it out.)

The easiest way to determine the worthiness of a person on stage is to identify exactly what he or she is contributing. What information is this one delivering? Unless each one is dropping a clue about another character, the murder weapon or method or motive, or some other crucial aspect of the crime, that person has no purpose. I can already see one who could lose his name and perhaps his usefulness. And I see another who has done nothing since the opening chapters. Already I'm reducing the number possibly by two.

There is no one answer to how many characters are enough. But asking the question is important for the development of the story, keeping it clean and well paced while also creating a richly imagined narrative that draws in the reader. How many characters do you have in your stories?

Coming in September, Below the Tree Line (Midnight Ink) follows a farmer and healer in the Pioneer Valley, in central Massachusetts. Felicity O'Brien enjoys the quiet life of her family farm until strangers take a sudden interest in her land.


Jacqueline Seewald said...

I generally don't introduce more than six possible suspects for a murder mystery and then develop each one in some depth. It gets too complicated for me otherwise. But if you can deal with more, that's fine. I like the way some mystery writers take two parallel plot lines and then surprise us by meshing and intersecting them.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Jacquie, I agree with the idea of limiting the number of suspects, and focusing on developing them as much as possible. As I go along writing about them, however, I find myself introducing other individuals who are back-ups, the people in our lives who enrich us even if they're not the main figures. In my current novella, I have one ex-wife and a widow, three childhood friends, two co-workers of one suspect, and some local vendors. I'm watching them spiral around the main action and the main suspects. This is why I have to use notecards, to remember all the details I introduce and then forget. Thanks for adding a clear perspective on your approach.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I think the idea of using notecards is a good one and I will try it myself.

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