It’s amazing how much I have forgotten about my work in progress, the one that’s been paused for the better part of three years. (I’ve been writing it on again and off again for six years, actually. Life and death have so often broken me away from the work, that it’s progressing on an average of 8,000 words a year. At this rate, it will be finished in three more years.)
During the first third of the book, my poor hero was mostly alone as he dealt with the affects of a world gone berserk, which created many writing challenges. It’s much easier to write with two characters so they can play off each other, butt heads, have dialogues, or whatever is necessary for the story.
The second part of the book presented an entirely different challenge — too many characters. I’m typing up a stray chapter, one I wrote three years ago, and it astonished me to count fifteen characters: my hero, his nemesis, three starfish-like aliens, plus ten supporting characters. Ouch.
Luckily, I’d done research on group dynamics shortly after I started writing this book, and so I was able to give each human an identifiable role in the group. As I found out, at times groups act like a single entity, so that also helps in dealing with myriad characters. As I wrote in On Writing: Characters and Group Mentality:
There are five stages of group development:
1. Coming together and finding roles
2. Defining the task
3. Disenchantment with the leader, each other
4. Cohesion, feeling like a team
5. Interdependence, acting like a team, becoming more than the sum of the parts.
Most groups unconsciously assign roles to the members, and once these roles have been assigned, tacit agreement maintains them. The most common group roles are: leader, seducer (wants to bewitch others), silent member, taskmaster, clown, victim, oppressor, conciliator, combatant, nurse, young Turk (wants to take over the leadership), the naïf, and the scapegoat.
Groups tend to isolate one person as the source of any conflict, whether warranted or not, and they deposit their negative feelings on that person. Because my hero keeps to himself, and because the others think he’s “teacher’s pet,” he becomes the scapegoat. I don’t think he cares, though, so if you don’t care, are you still the scapegoat? Either way, that’s the role the group has assigned him.
Well, the group didn’t assign him that role; apparently I did once upon a time. It should be interesting to see what other treasures I find as I rediscover this story.
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.
July 3, 2013 at 5:17 pm
Interesting. I tend to wrestle at time myself with the prospect of too many characters. I am familiar with all you’ve written here but what you’ve written comes to me as timely reminders. Its always good to have reminders during the editing stage of a book.
July 3, 2013 at 7:30 pm
I generally try to stick with just a few characters, but it seems as if if most of my books, I end up with a crowd scene. At least this one will be fairly short since I get to kill them all off.
July 3, 2013 at 11:04 pm
I got only a couple of crowd scenes in what I’m working on at the moment. Much of the action though centers around two people and their shared past. Unfortunately, I don’t get to bump off a crowd. Maybe in the next book I work on.
July 3, 2013 at 5:24 pm
What’s a naïf?
By the way, I’ve heard of some of these roles before. They were in a 9-book series I read that was pretty good…until the last book. I had some problems with that one.
July 3, 2013 at 7:29 pm
A naif is a naive person. In the context of a group, it’s the person who is innocent, perhaps young, asks questions because they don’t know what the others know.
July 3, 2013 at 8:03 pm
Oh, that character. In anime contexts they’re often known as space cadets. Everybody loves them, but sometimes you want to punch them for being so dumb.
July 3, 2013 at 8:07 pm
In comicbookish movies, they are dumb, but mostly they are just young and innocent and inexperienced.
July 3, 2013 at 8:43 pm
They make great idealistic apprentices to knights in shining armor, as well.