How many characters is too many?

Discussion in 'Writing' started by Princeroth, Sep 13, 2012.

  1. KatG

    KatG The Bony Hand of Death Staff Member

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    Not really, I find. I've worked with plenty of experienced, "good" authors who still have to go over their stuff to figure out if they've been unclear when they wanted to be clear and whether they need to cut something or someone, whether what's in their heads is down on the page and who have uncertainty about what's in their head in the first place or where things might be not working. Deciding how many characters to have in your story is not about measurements of talent; it's just about the process of writing and story crafting. Certainty or lack thereof about the decisions you make is not a reflection of writing ability or experience at making decisions. Lack of certainty about these things is pretty much normal for writers. Most writers will say that they'd go back and tinker with published works -- even award winning ones -- if they could (and occasionally they do for a new revised reissue.) What they were certain about in handling, they don't necessarily stay certain about. So any angle of attacking the issue can be potentially useful and it's usually, I find, not a good idea to assume an author knows of or has remembered an angle of attack he could use, even simple ones like, would cutting a character help. Sometimes the only way an author can figure things out and have the aha moment is from another person asking him questions. So MDM's questions may help or may not with the OP's original issue, depending on how useful they are with the OP's particular process.
     
  2. kissmequick

    kissmequick bingley bingley beep

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    Perhaps that's so. Or perhaps not.

    But that's not really a very helpful answer to the original question!
     
  3. Laer Carroll

    Laer Carroll LaerCarroll.com

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    When posters start to nitpick other's posts a thread is tottering on its last legs.:)
     
  4. PeteMC

    PeteMC @PeteMC666

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    Soooo, back to the thread...

    I absolutely agree, for what it's worth, but when does that cross the line into the cardinal sin (so I'm told) of "head hopping"?

    This is something I was very guilty of in my earlier stuff, which I've now trained myself out of to the extent that I now only write in either third person limited or first person. How do you tell where the line is between an effective omniscient POV and "head hopping"?
     
  5. KatG

    KatG The Bony Hand of Death Staff Member

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    There isn't a line. "Head-hopping" is a term that was made up by people who don't like third person omniscient and don't think anyone should make use of that format ever anymore. So if you ever use the multiple pov technique, then you are head-hopping and for those with that preference, you are a bad, bad writer. :)

    What you are talking about, though, is how do you handle multiple pov technique effectively and that depends first on whether you want to use it and have an omniscient narrator approach. You may not -- it may not work with your eventual style preferences. If you do, there are many uses for it. You can provide several points of view of say a big action scene like a battle without inserting section breaks in between them as you would do if you are using third person limited. That gives you a more seamless multi-person, multi-camera perspective. Multiple povs can also work well with a two person conversation in which you get both people's takes on a conversation in the same section. So, for instance, if you had a negotiation scene between a human and an alien, giving both their perspectives in the scene would allow readers to understand how they are analyzing what's been said and provide a lot of info beyond the dialogue, or beyond having one pov and then having to have the other pov provide info in flashback memory later. You could show how the two characters are completely misunderstanding each other as they talk. So for some purposes multiple pov can be a faster, more flowing narrative because it doesn't require the section breaks and big announcement therein of a change of pov.

    One of the books I'm reading at the moment is Ari Marmell's The Goblin Corps and he uses omniscient multiple pov to be able to do big action scenes in which there are multiple characters in different locales or positions, specifically his squad of creatures. The narrative will ping pong, so if one character is attached to a rope lowered into a hole and others are up top holding the rope and a third is checking the horizon, he can just switch between them to integrate the whole scene. We get to know the characters just as well -- better in a sense since we're in all of their heads, not just a smaller segment of them, but he doesn't have to build separate action arcs for all of them with chapter and section breaks to do that. So it's an effective technique for what he's doing and omniscient techniques like multiple pov's are often used for satire because they can help in setting up a lot of action and humor aspects.

    Human beings are perfectly able to process this info in text, in the same way that they can process jump cuts and split screens. The biggest issue is just making clear whose head you're in when you switch pov, which is done in relatively few words. You're just using the words instead of a section break to note pov change for them. Some readers, though, don't like the effect the technique produces. They just don't. That is, though, if they notice that you have it. A lot of people read third person omniscient narratives with omniscient narration and/or multiple pov's in a scene and they simply process the info without noticing the structure. I've had numerous conversations with people about omniscient texts they've read and liked that they're stunned to hear have evil head-hopping or an omniscient narrator, (or even a collective omniscient narration "we.") We are all very good at processing text and pov. How often you switch from one character to another involves what info you are providing, your goals for that section, what sort of pacing and action you're having, etc., so it's one of the many things that authors have to decide.

    The OP, however, I don't think was concentrating on multiple pov so much as how many pov characters. And these questions are all related -- how many pov characters do you need for your story goals, how many times do you switch in a scene under multi pov for your story goals, etc. If Princeroth has six main characters whose viewpoint is tugging for attention (plus the occasional view from an antagonist,) it's not inherently unmanageable and can be done in third person limited format. But, depending on the narrative, an author might not want to limit pov switches to every chapter -- that may be too long and require too many extra chapters. So section breaks for the switch in perspective -- those couple of blank lines -- might be a more effective way to go, with more than one pov in each chapter. Chapter and section breaks can be used in omniscient formats as well to shift pov.
     
  6. kissmequick

    kissmequick bingley bingley beep

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    Tbh, I think head hopping it what people use to describe omni done badly - that is popping in and out of heads so fast the reader's neck gets whiplash. Or done confusingly, so the reader can't be sure whose head they are in at any given point. It's not moving from one head to the other that's a problem. It's doing it badly.

    Omni feels like it should be easy, and it is easy, to an extent. It's harder to get right though, harder to do well.

    Look at say Prachett. His Discworld books are all in omni, and it's something of a masterclass. You always know whose head you are in, and are always aware that the voice is of the narrator (a vital part of omni). If he switches from one person to another in a scene, it is done with maximum finesse, seamless, and it's not just a quick jump. It's never confusing (unlike that book I read where the POV shifted three times in two short sentences, leaving me with a 'huh? Who...what?' feeling. That's headhopping)
     
  7. KatG

    KatG The Bony Hand of Death Staff Member

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    Unfortunately, after years of dealing with students and authors who believe third person omniscient techniques are evil, I'm afraid that the main definition remains switching from one character pov to another without chapter or scene break -- hopping from head to head. And the taboo against it is usually claimed to be because editors supposedly hate it and won't publish it. You can trot out dozens of published novels where it occurs and still have writers convinced that the format died out in the 1980's, when head-hopping started being used as a term. Occasionally, there is a variant, like doing it too often or doing it without an overarching omniscient narrator, but mostly you'll run into the it's switching pov's in the middle of the action definition. (And I agree that Pratchett is a masterclass in third person omniscient techniques.)

    That being said, you can do an omniscient format and not use head-hopping. You can do pretty much anything in omniscient. But you can use a more limited set of techniques -- third person limited -- or first person, etc., if you don't want to mess with omniscient techniques. There isn't one way that's better at handling big casts than another.
     
  8. Loerwyn

    Loerwyn Staff

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    I think Pratchett's a bit of an odd example.

    He doesn't use chapters (in his adult Discworld books, at least) and tends to stick to a few PoVs for the most part. The reason it works is he gives each character a distinct identity and makes the fringe PoVs interesting and relevant.

    Even with all the silliness and stuff, Sir Pratchett is an incredibly efficient author. The same cannot be said about Beardy Martin.
     
  9. Fung Koo

    Fung Koo >:|Angry Beaver|: <

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    In the end, you have to do what the story demands in order to be told. And during the first draft, you just do whatever seems natural as it comes out. The end product, after revision, will likely have little resemblance to the first draft. Secondary PoV characters may get merged, deleted, altered, rewritten. Entire subplots will appear and disappear. It may change from 3rd to 1st, back to 3rd, limited, omni, or both. The main character you start with may even get dropped in favour of a character that at first seemed minor, but ends up being the truly strong character in the story.

    In the first draft, just write what needs to be written. Others will tell you what's not working, and provided you're willing to listen and experiment, you will sort it out.
     
  10. KatG

    KatG The Bony Hand of Death Staff Member

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    But he does use third person omniscient as a format. He will move through multiple pov's in some scenes and he uses an omniscient narrator voice frequently (and for me, always entertainingly.)

    Agree, very much. But it is sometimes possible to decide not to bother with a particular character pov before you write the first draft. However, I think nine pov characters (3 opposition, 6 main,) that the OP was talking about isn't going to break most writers' banks.
     
  11. kissmequick

    kissmequick bingley bingley beep

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    He does write omni as it should be written (with a coherent narrator) rather than as it it is sometimes seen as (let's just go in everyone's heads! Because I can! No, it does not work that way., STUDY omni, as you would any other part of writing)

    If you write omni, read it, research it. Know that you are basically telling the story from a viewpoint, it just isn't one of the characters (well, usually). Give your narrator a voice (even if it blends into the background, YOU should know the voice, voice is super important in omni, even if no one else ever sees it The narrators voice is what holds the whole book together.)

    REad

    Study

    Same as other POVs . Be aware that it is, possibly, the hardest POV to pull off well.
     
  12. SR_Seldon

    SR_Seldon SF Author

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    I think that a story can have as many POV characters as it can stand. That said, I think that every story has to focus on a limited number. I've been plodding through the unabridged Les Miserables. A huge cast of characters (not to mention any number of long side tracks), but over all there were a limited number that he dwelled on for any length of time. Others came an went as needed. Overall the exact number doesn't matter, it is how many are up in the air at any one time that you have to concentrate on. Not every POV requires that you concentrate, sometimes they can be just to provide information.

    Great stories can have one POV character or twenty, but there are always going to be major ones and minor ones and a good writer will keep the balance to keep the reader's interest. I've heard a lot of people comment on Jordan and how he started to lose sight of the balance. He started with a large cast and he just made it bigger rather than letting some drop off when he added new ones. I have a friend who went on and on about this. Les Miserables is a good example of keeping the balance. There are a lot overall, but only a handful in any section.
     
  13. KatG

    KatG The Bony Hand of Death Staff Member

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    There are two techniques that are characteristic of omniscient formats (and they are not the only two but the two major aspects as opposed to first person or third person tight.) One is the omniscient narrator voice, which is narration that does not come from any character's pov and when employed is essentially telling the story. The second is multiple pov's in which more than one character's pov is given in the same section of text. The multiple pov's do come from the fact that a text is omniscient and thus able to cover all thoughts as desired, plus outside information as desired, but using multiple povs in a section does not require additionally an omniscient narrator voice (no character pov,) clearly presented to go with them. You can have one and not the other. Omniscient narration without multiple povs is fairly common (see Harry Potter.) Multiple pov's without omniscient narration somewhere in the book is less common but not odd. And even if omniscient narration is clearly presented as a separate voice somewhere in the book, that does not mean the separate voice has to be clearly present when you're doing multiple pov's, although it often is. So again, that's a stylistic preference, not a requirement.

    Again, processing multiple povs is not particularly hard for readers to do. If omniscient were hard for readers, Lord of the Rings wouldn't be quite the big deal that it has been. But if the OP is worried about having too many pov characters, I don't think the inclusion of an omniscient narrator as the way to structure that text is the direction desired. Third person limited would probably serve. For what Erikson was doing, however, nothing but an omniscient set of techniques was going to work. Big fantasy stories or SF stories can be done in any type of format. The choice has a lot to do with how the author wants to think about the story, and as Fung pointed out, you may end up completely changing formats between first draft and final.