Cramming in Characters: Overloads & Overwhelms Readers

image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images
image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images

A common first-chapter problem is introducing too many characters in the first scene. This can also be a problem for later scenes.

The Problem

  • image by OpenClipart-Vectors
    image by OpenClipart-Vectors
    Readers feel as if they’ve entered a gala with names thrown at them.
  • People can keep track of around three characters at a time.
  • Readers become confused and forget the many characters’ relationships to the protagonist.
  • Authors are less likely to round out people when too many are introduced at once.

Solutions

  • Introduce necessary characters; don’t simply name them.
  • Use names that sound different from names of other people.
  • Determine which characters are crucial. If they don’t have a short or long-term purpose, eliminate them.
  • image by geralt
    image by geralt
    Consider whether two or more characters can be combined into one character.
  • Decide which critical characters can be introduced later. This removes first-chapter overload and starts the story faster.

 

  • Space introductions of essential characters throughout the scene and give each a memorable feature, action, or dialogue.
  • Allow only characters in the first chapter who have purposes that support the setup and keep the focus on the protagonist.
  • Consider this in a scene: At a party, we wouldn’t receive the full background of the twenty people we meet.
  • Introduce two or three new vital characters in scenes subsequent to the first—after readers have had a chance to grasp the story setup. Then, each character can have his own cameo through action, dialogue, and the protagonist’s point of view.

An Example

At Mom’s wake, Millie’s brother, Don, introduced his college roommate, Mark. Before Millie had a chance to say more than hello, Sally and Vera, her mother’s closest friends approached and threw their arms around her. Extricating herself from Mom’s chums, Millie caught a glance of Ron over by the shrimp platter. She needed to speak to him. Of course, Mom’s cousin Emma, had to come. Emily, her daughter, followed her everywhere.

image by Unsplash
image by Unsplash

An Evaluation:

  • Mark never enters the story again or has any purpose.
  • Don and Ron and Emma and Emily are essential, but their names are too similar. Possibly Emma and Emily could be detained and arrive the following day.
  • Although we’re given how each person is related to Millie, we’re given nothing memorable to keep these 8 people straight.
  • Mom’s chums could possibly be combined into one friend.

Better Rewrite:

Millie’s chest caved. Couldn’t Don have honored their mother and come to her wake sober? Millie turned her sisterly glare into a smile as Mom’s closest friend Vera approached with outstretched arms. Vera’s arm flab flapped as she waddled closer. Extricating herself from Vera’s bear hug, Millie caught sight of handsome Erik half hidden by the oriental screen. Was Erik avoiding their needed conversation?

Best Rewrite: Now have moments spaced throughout the scene in which these 4 characters hint at or show their long- and short-term purposes to the chapter and story.

Be deliberate in introducing many characters so readers aren’t overwhelmed or confused. Click to tweet.

What other suggestions do you have for introducing characters?

Story’s Black Moment: Make Sure It’s Black for a Red-Hot Reason

image by PublicDomainPictures
image by PublicDomainPictures

Writers hear much about the need for conflict and disasters in every scene and a black moment near the story’s two-thirds point. We don’t throw these essentials into the mix, but intentionally construct them.

image by geralt
image by geralt

Conflicts and disasters work to enhance the plot or develop characterization. The black moment forces the character to realize what the character truly yearns for, and the event calls for a life change.

 

 

Before the Black Moment

Besides a character’s outward and inward goals, the character longs for something missing in her life. Her longing is something she doesn’t realize—or doesn’t grasp how important it is to her. Usually, past experiences have caused the yearning.

image by PublicDomainPictures
image by PublicDomainPictures

Examples:

  • Amy yearns for the peace of being able to trust, or trust again.
  • Conroy longs to never have to worry about being sent away again.
  • Jenna yens to be good enough.

Since these longings are part of the character’s makeup, the reader will see hints of these yearnings throughout the story. No character or narrator will tell or explain the yearning. The hints will be shown through the character’s thoughts and actions.

During the Black Moment

The black moment is a painful event of some type that causes the character to realize his yearning and that it’s what he’s wanted all along. More than his physical goals.

image by johnhain
image by johnhain

Examples:

  • Amy’s boyfriend leaves. Sobbing, Amy realizes her mistrust has driven away her soulmate. She asks herself, would she want to marry someone who never trusted her?
  • Conroy is fired from his job for which he worked hard to please his bosses. He realizes bending backward doesn’t guarantee peace and security. His timidity may have even caused his termination.
  • The boat capsizes, and fishing line entangles Jenna’s husband. She realizes looking for help from nearby boats isn’t an option. This time, she has to be good enough or become a widow.

After the Black Moment

The realization moment must drive the character to make a decision to change, or ignore her revelation. And the decision should be more than internal reflection. She must show the change or status quo through her actions.

Examples:

  • Amy decides that trusting the hero is the only thing that will save their relationship. She goes to his apartment, where he talks with his lovely neighbor. When he sees Amy, he looks nervous. Amy’s smile is genuine, and she calmly enters into their conversation.
  • Conway decides he’s through “playing it safe” out of fear that people will reject him. He asks his girlfriend of six years to marry him.
  • image by Evaul
    image by Evaul
    Jenna decides to do the impossible and try to save her husband. She quickly ties the boat rope to her waist, dives under the water, releases his knife from its sheath, and frees his arms and legs.

 

 

A story’s black moment makes heroes realize their yearning and calls for a change. Click to tweet.

What does your story’s black moment reveal and call your character to decide?

Point of View: Deepen Your Scene as You Employ It

image by geralt
image by geralt

Through two examples, I’ll show how employing point of view can enrich a scene as readers experience the setting, characterization, plot, and story theme.

I’ll use the same elements for each example.

   Character: Clara Hill, a twenty-three-year-old woman.

   Theme: A first-time teacher learns to reach and help her students.

   Setting: Classroom.

   Scene Plot: How Clara handles her first day of class.

Example 1 

Principal Edwards introduced Clara to the class then headed for the door.

He was leaving her so soon—with the black boy wearing unlaced combat boots and sitting in the last row, tying knots in the blind cord? And with the white pregnant girl, sitting in front chewing gum? Or was that tobacco?

Clara scurried to the teacher’s desk, putting the bulwark between her and the class. Seven columns and six rows of one-armed student desks. And all of them filled with lounging teens. Eighty-four eyes bearing down on her, sizing her up, following her every movement.

image by PublicDomainPictures
image by PublicDomainPictures

She grasped the English textbook with both hands. Anything to steady her trembling fingers. As she opened the book, her number-two pencil fell from its pages, rolled off the desk to the filthy terrazzo floor, and stopped at the mud-encrusted wader of the boy with one lazy eye.

She glanced at the boy. Wasn’t he going to pick it up?

“You dropped your pencil,” he said, one eye on her and the other on the pencil.

What happened to raising one’s hand to speak? And since when was a teacher expected to handle a class of forty-two miscreants? [Scene continues.]

Example 2

Principal Edwards introduced Clara to the class then headed for the door.

Clara ran her gaze over the students as she waited until the metal door clicked shut. A motley bunch, but they’d do.

image by tdfugere
image by tdfugere

She strode to the wooden desk, plopped her rump onto the spot where a lovelorn teen had engraved, ‘LILY LUVS AL,’ and crossed her legs.

“My name is Clara Hill. Ms. Hill to you.” She nodded at the teen in the back. “You who can’t decide whether to open or shut the blinds, what’s your name?”

Sniggers rippled through the students.

The boy released the blind cord. “Emmett Crowe.”

“Thanks, Emmett.” Clara’s clog nearly touched the knee of the rosy-cheeked young lady on the first row. She smiled at the girl. “What’s your name?”

“Annabel Grubbs.”

“How far along are you, Annabel?” Maybe Clara should have taken a birthing class instead of CPR.

More sniggers.

Annabel giggled, displaying brown teeth. “Thirty-four weeks.”

“My guess is you’ll miss the first unit test.” [Scene continues.]

 

Through point of view:

  1.  Clara is fearful and judgmental

OR

    is bold and direct.

2.   Clara sees 42 occupied chairs, skin color, filth, and miscreants

OR

     sees individual students, fidgeting, pregnant, and infatuated with “AL.”

3.   The way Clara handles her first day drives what needs to happen to satisfy the novel’s theme that Clara will reach and help her students (plot).

Perhaps, Clara changes her outlook and relationships with her students

OR

fights the community for the students’ good.

Put point of view to work for characterization, setting, theme, and plot. Click to tweet.

How have you put point of view to work in a scene?