Most Common Writing Mistakes: The Dangers of Character Overload
How many characters does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Only as many as the reader can keep track of at once.
When authors are dealing with large casts of characters—or even just scenes that require the rapid-fire introduction of more than two or three characters—readers sometimes find themselves in grave danger of “character overload.” Usually, I would tell you there’s no such thing as too many good characters. But, in this instance, too many characters can become way yonder too much of a good thing. Let’s take a look at an example:
Gabrielle surveyed the feast spread on her table. If this wasn’t enough for food for everyone who was coming, she was in big trouble. The doorbell rang, and she hurried to answer it. In walked her cousin Bill and his wife Tootsie, their three adorable children Annamarie, Hank, and Bill, Jr. Gabrielle barely had time to greet them before the doorbell rang again and she opened the door to welcome Ella—her cousin twice removed (or was it three times?). Then came Uncle Mutt and Aunt Kitty, her best friends Jeri and Mae and their husbands Andrew and Mike. And that was only the first half of the guests!
This paragraph has introduced us to the unlucky number of thirteen characters. How many of them of are readers likely to remember? A few paragraphs later, no one’s going to remember if Jeri is a twice-removed cousin or a best friend. And yet all these characters seem vital to the story. They must be introduced. So what’s a writer to do?
You have a couple options.
Reevaluate your characters’ necessity.
Do you really need all thirteen characters? Before you write one more jot, tittle, or tilde, stop and evaluate your characters. Is there any chance you could combine two or more of these characters to tighten up your cast and streamline your story? Maybe Jeri and Mae, the two best friends, could be combined into one person, and, to further simplify matters, maybe this best friend is single, eliminating the need for a husband. Maybe cousin Bill and his wife have only one adorable child instead of three.
Spread the introductions over multiple scenes.
Once you’ve got your cast stripped down to optimum fighting weight, evaluate the scene itself. Do all these characters really need to be introduced in this one scene? Could you spread them out over several different scenes to give readers a chance to process each character? Perhaps only cousins Bill and Ella attend Gabrielle’s dinner. Best friend Jeri-Mae can come over after the party to help Gabrielle clean up.
Space the introductions throughout one scene.
If you’ve determined all your characters absolutely must be introduced in this one scene, at least space out their introductions over the course of the scene. Instead of an onslaught at Gabrielle’s door, let the guests trickle in throughout the evening so Gabrielle has a chance to exchange a little dialogue with each guest—thus helping to anchor the characters in the reader’s mind—before moving on to the next one.
Make each character memorable.
Finally, the single most important thing you can do to make characters stick in your reader’s mind—no matter how quickly you introduce them—is to make them memorable. Instead of just rattling off the guest list as they barge into Gabrielle’s house, give each character a memorable trait, action, or line of dialogue to help him stick in the reader’s memory. Maybe Tootsie has dyed her hair crimson, maybe Ella is in tears, maybe Bill, Jr., barges in with the cat dangling by its tail, maybe Uncle Mutt is drunk. Whatever the case, keep in mind that the only characters who belong in your story are the ones worth remembering—so make their entrances unforgettable.