15 February 2012

Working with a cast of thousands

What happens when you add too many characters
I feel sorry for the producers of Ben-Hur, Cleopatra and the like. Getting a suitably epic feel for the movie meant that a lot of people had to be hired. A LOT. You couldn't have one guy walking in the background and then digitally multiply him a thousand times. These guys did it old-school.

As much of a logistical nightmare as that must have been, I can imagine it being a very similar thing when working with multiple characters and plot threads. George R.R. Martin is a good example of this, where he has several characters traipsing all over Westeros and beyond, each with their own fully formed story. Juggling all of these viewpoints and plots, as well as intertwining them successfully, is no mean feat.

I've read a good number of fantasy novels that attempt very much the same thing, but end up being nothing more than a succession of plot points broken up with someone else's name. Characters begin to merge rather than story threads, and at the end you have little more than a flash fiction anthology set in the same world.

 I must confess, I've not read any of the Song of Ice and Fire books, but from what I've seen of the TV adaptation and from reviews, Martin manages his characters very well. I have yet to come across an author who works with so many main characters and still maintains coherency in their plot. Based on that, I can only assume that it's damned tough to do. It seems that it's much ore of a safe bet with multiple characters to keep them together and only have one or two offshoots to the main plot (as in Lord of the Rings split the Fellowship into three groups, and only after the first book had firmly established the characters and the story that they were following).

I imagine that a lot of it has to do with the attention span of readers. Not enough characters and you've got a linear, uneventful plot (and if you don't like the character, there's a high chance you'll stop reading soon after picking it up). Multiple characters shake things up and allow us to alternate perspectives a little, but add too many characters and the whole thing becomes too complicated for your average reader to follow. There has to be a balance.

How many characters is too many? Is there a 'golden number' for a story? And do you prefer multiple plot threads or a single main plot?

17 comments:

  1. Don't know the magic number but too many becomes distracting. I like one plot thread with several sub-plots. I haven't read his books but the shows I caught of season one were good.

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    1. I'm more or less the same, though I may change my tune when I finally read GRRM.

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  2. I keep my characters few, but most of what I've written is post-apocalyptic which helps keep character counts low. More than six and I start getting crazy and killing off characters.

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    1. I don't blame you, Josh. I can't imagine that many characters in a post-apoc novel. I find that The Walking Dead has too many characters for the kind of story it is.

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    2. Agreed. Maybe they'll kill off Shane, Lori, and Andrea before the end of the season. I'd like the continuing adventures of Rick, Glenn, Darryl, and Dale. They'd be the four horsemen of the zombie apocalypse.

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    3. Shane gets my vote. He's a liability.

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  3. I've examined Mr. Martin's books with some depth and he does manage his characters well because he uses a trope that William Faulkner invented in Absalom, Absalom.

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    1. I've not heard of Absalom, Absalom. I'll have to check it out. Thanks!

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  4. It totally depends on the skill of the writer and the type of story they're telling.

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  5. yes, I agree with Karen. It depends. I once read a book called The Slap. It introduces all the characters in the first chapter at a backyard BBQ. There were a lot. But he did it so skilfully I hardly noticed there were so many. 20 people in one hit. Yikes, can you imagine?!

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  6. I agree with Karen as well. I have yet to read Martin's work, but I've been hearing a lot about it. Personally, I'm of the mind that a good war story in epic fantasy is going to deal with a lot of characters. I don't know if I accomplished any good writing with mine, we'll see when the reviews come in. But I don't have a "golden number", I just toss in whoever feels right and if someone ends up looking a little left out in the end, I just silently remove the character. :D

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  7. I read the first four of Song of Ice and Fire and Martin did an amazing job of keeping so many characters doing so many things in so many places. I haven't rushed out and bought Dance with Dragons since I know that once I read it it will still be another two years minimum before the next book comes out. And when I do, I'll have to re-read the first four again. Not that that will be any hardship :)

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  8. nice post today, Jamie! I love when both books and films have a lot of characters with intertwined stories. Books with one main character told through his/hers viewpoint are usually boring.

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  9. they're like a gorgeous tapestry, all woven together.
    grrm is a genius.
    seriously.
    i had one story- my first attempt at a novel, where i did this kind of thing... and not to sound conceited, but i think it was going well- for me- i had i think five different characters, and they were diverse and weaving together, and it was crazy hard.
    then we had our housefire and i lost the whole thing.
    sometimes i think about trying to rewrite it, but i think i'm going to work on some of my other ideas first...

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  10. I think it reaches the "too many" point when there are so many characters who have been introduced who aren't doing anything, who aren't adding anything to the plot or character development, and/or who were mentioned a few times and sound interesting enough to do something with but who never get mentioned again. Having many characters does allow for variety in the storytelling, but man, are they ever hard to control once they're there, and sometimes it's much easier to let a few go and maybe combine them with another character in order to simplify things. I've read a few novels where this should have been done but wasn't.

    It takes great skill to handle many characters. I envy and applaud the authors who manage it well.

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  11. Hmmm... I'm not sure there's a correct answer here. I think it depends on the story and the skill of the author! I don't think any character should just be there, though - they must be present for a reason.

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  12. I much prefer single thread plots, or at the most just two. But I tend to find that often, one of the threads is weaker than the other, and I'll rush through to get back to the one I'm enjoying reading more! I read a bit of one recently that had so many characters that I didn't get the point of at least half of them!
    Interesting post!
    Laura xxx

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