Balancing a Million Characters…or How to Shove Them in the Corner

Recently, I noticed a pattern in the amount of characters in my stories, and the way I write them. I usually have a total of two or three important characters at once in a scene. Why? Because it’s easy to balance them and remember which personality belongs to which character and how they’d react. You know that character A would say something like this in that tone of voice, and then of course character B will only get mad about that, while character C is just going to roll his eyes and laugh to himself.

But what if you have character D, E, F, G, and H all together with the original three, too? Now you have to figure out how to make both B’s anger and E’s contempt at A’s comment fit, while C rolls his eyes, G and H laugh, and F tries to make B even angrier just for the fun of it. Meanwhile, who even knows what D’s doing.

Wait a second….if you were to write that scene, either one of two things will happen. First, you would confuse both yourself and the reader. Wait, just happened? Or, you’re going to pick between the characters. Oh. A’s comment is obviously important, so you can stay in the scene, B, you too…C, nah you’re not that important, or you D and E. F, you’re only making things worse. All of you! In the corner.

There. Much better. I only have A, B, G, and H. Much, much easier to write, eh?

So, let’s pause for a moment. What did I just do? I shoved all of the characters except for a few in the corner. Now, if I were to write it, they might as well not exist, except that they were probably mentioned earlier, so we know they’re there. Often, this will leave the reader wondering, So, what happened to the other characters? And when they’re wondering random things like that, often they aren’t paying attention to what you want them to.

Whoops.

What are you supposed to do when you have that many characters, then? I’m sure as you’re reading this, you’re probably thinking of things you read where characters disappear into the background, if only for a moment or two.

This question is what I’m trying to answer. My latest book, the one that I’m not supposed to be writing, seems to have a million or so characters, all in the same scene. And every time I sit down and write, somebody gets pushed into the corner, without me even thinking about. Then half way through the scene, I’ll go, Hey, wait a minute…what happened to So-and-so? She wouldn’t just ignore this, she’d being doing this instead. Hmm…

I think I’ve come to a conclusion, though. When you come to this, you have three options. A. Get rid of some characters. Combine them with someone else, kill ’em, something. Just rid of them. B. Deal with the consequences. Somebody is going to have to go sit in the corner in time-out. After all, you can’t guarantee that every scene in the novel will have only a few characters. So concentrate on who’s important. C. Split them all up. Similar, in a way, to option A, but without getting rid of them permanently. Make them all go in a maze, and get split up. A few characters here, a few there, and a few more waaayyy over there.

Or, I suppose there’s D. Figure out how to balance all of them. Don’t shove them in the corner, just pick between a few characters to respond to one thing. So after A’s comment, pick between B getting mad and E showing contempt. Say, if you pick B, then next time when E has a response you could do, let him this time. That way, they aren’t as involved in the scene as they could be, but they aren’t shoved in the corner, either.

After all, who likes being put into time-out just because there are too many people?

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