In a previous post, I mentioned that I needed to fill a hole in my work-in-progress. As it stands now, everyone my hero knows disappears, leaving him alone for too many pages. I have a hard time writing scenes that come alive with only a single character; I need another character contributing to the conflict or providing a sounding board for the hero. The hero will have a cat for a while, which doesn’t really help. The cat is an ally (perhaps) and is not a source of conflict. Besides, writing dialogue for a cat is difficult unless he is a talking cat, and the story is silly enough without that.
Suzanne Francis, author of Heart of Hythea, commented that she found writing scenes with lots of characters even more difficult than writing for one or two. I have to agree. As difficult as it is to make a scene with a single character come alive, having a whole cast of characters interacting is worse. I picked up a book today about a group of women who banded together to avenge those who had wronged them, but I couldn’t get into it. Too many characters to keep track of and try to identify with.
Perhaps a crowd action scene wouldn’t be that difficult. Short sentences and pithy identifiers might make it seem as if a lot is going on. But the most compelling conflicts are usually between a protagonist and a single antagonist (human or nonhuman). Ever notice how in movies, whenever one hero is pitted against a multitude of bad guys, the bad guys take numbers and stand around waiting to be called? I always thought it was silly, but the reality doesn’t make for much of a story. Five against one. Whap. The hero is down. The end.
Dialogue with two people is easy. You don’t need many speaker attributes because they can take turns conversing. And you know who is in conflict. With several people, you have a litany of he said/she saids, dispersed conflicts, and long drawn out conversations. In real life, people talk over each other, which can’t be easily portrayed in a book. (Or even in a movie – in the nineteen seventies they tried for realism in dialogue with two people talking at the same time, and it was very confusing. And annoying.)
I read a bit of advice once to the effect that if you have several people in a restaurant scene, for example, have all but two characters go to the restroom, tablehop or whatever to get them out of the way. That way you can have both: a big group and a focused discussion.
Later in my work, I will have to deal with the problem of too many people in a scene, but for now I have the opposite problem.
So. A talking cat is out. But what about talking sheep?