Unblurring the characters

Characters make reading interesting, but every new person you add to a piece makes it heavier, more confusing, and harder to read. The shorter the piece, the more difficulty each added character causes. So we select the people to include in a piece ruthlessly; they must justify their weight. And we use techniques that make the characters work.

First of all, we avoid what I call “blurs of names,” too many characters introduced too close together. Read this passage, from John Gardner’s novel The Secret Generations, and see if you can make sense of the cast:

So it was with General Sir William Arthur Railton VC KCB DSO – known to all within the family simply as The General.
The entire family had spent the Christmas of 1910 at Redhill, as was the custom. The General’s younger brother, Giles, had been there with his naval officer son, Andrew, who brought his wife, Charlotte, and their three sons — Caspar, and the twins, Rupert and Ramillies. Giles’ second son, Malcolm, had traveled from Ireland with his recent wife, Bridget; while Marie – Giles’ only daughter — had come with her French husband, Marcel Grenot, from Paris, together with their two children, Paul and Denise.
The General’s own two sons were present — Charles, the younger, with his oddly dowdy wife, Mildred, and their daughter, Mary Anne; and John, the Member of Parliament, proud with his young second wife, Sara, and the son of his first, tragic, marriage — James.

Could you follow that hurricane of names? Of course not, and Gardner makes it worse in the next two paragraphs:

It was the happiest of holidays, for this was a special time at Redhill, and the General was in excellent spirits.
On the Tuesday after Christmas they had gone their separate ways, leaving the General to celebrate the New Year at the Manor with his staff — Porter, his old servant; Cook; her daughter, Vera the head maid; the two undermaids; Natter the groom; Billy Crook the odd-job boy and the others.

Those 222 words contain 24 personal names and three place names. Luckily for readers, he didn’t name the “two undermaids” or “the others.” This passage occurs early in the novel, and later, many of these characters have nicknames, titles, code names, aliases, etc. Readers don’t stand a chance of following the plot.

So we introduce characters slowly and separately, developing details so readers can picture them. When characters reappear after some time, we give readers enough detail to remember who they were. If Natter walks in, we remind readers that he’s the groom.

In short pieces, we tend to focus on several players, surrounded by names in attributions to the quotes. Again, we select without pity. The shorter the piece, the more ruthless you have to be. Every character, every name, every quote must justify its weight.

[My next post will discuss how to choose (or reject) characters.]

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Published in: on September 14, 2009 at 9:04 am  Leave a Comment  

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