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?