Inviting A Crowd to the Party

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As I’ve mentioned, I’m editing an anthology called The Weird Wild West (coming from eSpec Books in the fall of this year!) and in the course of reading the stories, I’ve learned and relearned many lessons about what makes a great story great.  One of the problems I’ve noticed in some stories is with the characters themselves.  Not their personalities, but just how very many of them decide to make an appearance.

Have you ever seen those viral news stories about teenagers who post the details of their upcoming birthday parties on Twitter or Facebook?  They only mean the information for their friends, but strangers for miles around decide to show up to the party too, leaving the house in a shambles and the local jail full of weeping kids waiting for their parents to come get them.  A short story with too many characters can feel just as out of control as one of those parties.

There’s no set number on how many people should show up in a story.  I’ve read amazing stories in which one person was the only character from start to finish, and I’ve read stories with whole armies, all of whom had personalities and goals and quirks.  But when a story has characters who are only there for window dressing, that’s when the writer runs into a problem.

It’s easy to confuse even the most discerning reader with too many characters, especially if most of them have nothing important to do.  In an old western movie I saw the other day, the bad guy’s crew had over one hundred men in it.  That number of riders might look great on screen, but in reality, a gang that big just doesn’t work, economically or logistically.  The amount of money they stole would have to be insanely high for the effort to be worth it.  The same idea goes for a short story, where even a smaller number can still be too many.  Let’s say your protagonist, Wicked Mary, is the leader of a bandit gang, and has twelve guys working for her.  Wicked Mary sits down to plan their next job:

“You, Bob, you’re in charge of casing the building, and I want Joe and Anita to go with you.  Daniel, you’re the lockpick. George, you’re his backup in case he gets shot. Luis and Jean-Paul, I want you to romance the bank tellers and divert their attention. Carrie Belle and Harry, you get the getaway horses. Andy, White Feather and JimBob….y’all do the dishes here in the hideout while we’re gone.”

See?  Even twelve is just too many.  Wicked Mary probably needs to dump two-thirds of her gang.  The reader will care more for three characters than for thirteen.  Having a ton of characters means that some of them are going to miss out on getting any real fleshing-out. Which is a shame.  If you’re going to name people, they deserve to matter to the events of the story.  If you need a whole bunch of people in the background, do your best to not name them.  In “Mad Kestrel”, Kestrel has an entire pirate crew at hand, but only a handful have names and characterization, because there’s just not room to delve into the lives and motivations of fifty people.

So as you’re putting your story together, be aware of how many characters you’re inviting to the party.  If your protagonist is a sheriff who rides out with a half-dozen deputies out to catch Wicked Mary, stop for a moment and think about whether or not he really needs that many.  Wouldn’t the story be better served with the sheriff and his most trusted lieutenant?  Save all the other guys for another story.  Because there’s always another story lurking, and it needs people, too.

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3 comments to Inviting A Crowd to the Party

  • That’s a good point. If you depopulate your world, how can it have more stories? I mean, you ARE going to kill off half the crowd you send after the villain, right? 🙂

    BTW, bad link — spurious “www.html” appended. Should be just
    http://www.especbooks.com/

    Is Weird West still accepting submissions? I know someone who writes in that vein…

  • Oops, that earlier link was to the guidelines. Which are gone now, because the deadline is passed. But we’re planning on doing a second volume, so watch here and send your friend when that submission time comes around!

  • Razziecat

    This is something that I constantly keep in mind when I’m writing in the space opera genre. I have to know, at least in a “ballpark” sort of way, how many people are necessary to run a ship, but I don’t want to name every one of them. An intense firefight is not the ideal time for the reader to worry about keeping minor characters straight. I got around it in one case by having the commander refer to bridge crew members by function (Weapons, Comm, etc.) and by keeping comments directed to specific individuals to a minimum. Beyond that, I keep the action limited to certain characters and make sure that each one has his/her own personality so they’re easy to tell apart 😉