…and a cast of thousands, part 2!
I’ve written before of my tendency to write stories with scores of characters—and not just in my long stories. As I was working on my most recent novel, and the one before, a frequent comment from my writers’ group has been the difficulty to keeping track of so many characters.
Two of the three people who agreed to read the entirety of the finished draft novel for me said that when they read the finished work, the number of characters didn’t seem excessive. They were able to keep track of who everyone was and what was happening to them. And I had compared my tale to some published books and found that I didn’t have any more characters than some of them.
So I figured it was a product of context. My writing group was hearing typically one chapter a month, which is not how most people read books.
But now that I have gotten editorial comments back on the finished book, as I’m trying to finish it, I have had an epiphany. Context and the length of time between hearing pieces of the story are contributing factors, yes. But the real problem is that I’ve written the story as if it were a comic series…
As I was re-reading the current draft, checking it against the edits, and going through my big file of comments from the first draft readings, I noticed that specific segments that people had said went on too long were places where I was describing a sight gag. I hadn’t thought of it that way at that time.
For instance, I have a scene where an older wizard is having something explained to him by a younger wizard. The idea was to be like having something computer-related explained by a young tech whiz who is up on the latest gadgets to an older person who learned computing back in the era of mainframes and dumb terminals. The older wizard isn’t really understanding, but he is trying to pretend that he does. As the older wizard gets more confused, he makes a mystic gesture and a cocktail shaker magically appears in the air, begins to make him a cocktail, which is poured into a martini glass that also magically appears along with an olive on a stick. The older wizard drinks down the drink, makes a comment to the effect that now he understands… and the younger wizard said, “Oh, but that’s only half the problem, see…” and the wizard sighs, tosses the martini glass over his shoulder, and a new, much larger cocktail shaker materializes and starts to make a second cocktail.
If I were producing a comic book, the bit with the cocktail shaker would just be a visual gag happening while the dialogue goes on. It would be funny, as a sight gag along with the main story, but in text, it does add rather a lot of words and doesn’t necessarily tickle the reader’s funny bone as well as it should. I can still use it, but I shouldn’t have described it in such detail. It is just a small joke to emphasize how much the older wizard doesn’t understand and how he copes with it. It isn’t worth all those words.
Similarly, some entire scenes that would work perfectly well in a long comic story as a small interlude that shows what one of the supporting characters is doing while the main characters are making their way to the big battle, don’t come across as well in text.
One of the reasons I made this conclusion is that both of the readers who said they were able to keep track of all the characters also made comments about the visuals, how vividly they saw some scenes, and so forth. Both have mentioned (at different points) how great they think a particular scene would look illustrated or animated.
The reader who has read the whole thing and still thinks there are too many characters made no such observations. I also happen to know that his literary tastes run to very densely written sentences with lots of extra adjectives, and many multisyllabic words in each compound complex phrase. Not a visual person.
This doesn’t mean I can just leave everyone in. But it gives me a better idea of which of my darlings to kill as I plunge into the next revision.
If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.—Arthur Quiller-Couch