Overpopulation is the fourth writing pitfall I would like to discuss.
Have you ever read a book that had so many characters your head started spinning?
That’s what I’m referring to.
Some writers seem to think that more characters are better than fewer characters. While it’s true books with only a few characters can become boring, don’t fall into the trap of adding too many, particularly in the same scene. For example: while it may be great that your character is the most popular girl in school, it isn’t necessary to give every one of her friends a part in the story.
Also, if a character isn’t going to reappear or have bearing on the plot, the character doesn’t need a name.
For example, the teenage boy who sold your character a sandwich at the deli doesn’t need to be given a name if the reader is never going to see him again. An exception to this may be if you want to show that the main character is a regular of the deli shop and knows the sandwich boy by name. In most cases, however, very minor characters don’t need names. Have you ever noticed in movie credits how some parts have generic names like Wild Teenager #1 or Bus Driver? The same should be true in fiction writing, especially if the main character doesn’t know the person’s name. Giving the person a name when your character doesn’t know it is a point-of-view problem and is unnecessary.
Likewise, not every character needs to be fleshed out.
For example, I don’t need to know the deli worker’s life story. Adding it to the book or short story will only distract the reader and slow the pace. If the main character is going to eventually fall in love with the deli boy, then maybe some background on him would be relevant. It’s not necessary, though, to give it all up front when the reader first meets him. But, now I’m getting into backstory, which is another pitfall to talk about later.
How many people are enough?
There isn’t a magic number. But, if you’re having trouble keeping track of everyone, that’s probably a good indication that you have added too many characters. Crowds can be in a scene, but they don’t have to be individualized unless you have a reason for doing so. For example, if you want to focus in on a few people in the crowd to create a sense of the mood or atmosphere, that’s fine. Just keep in mind that doing so can slow the pace of the story.
What is my experience with overpopulation?
I’ve been guilty of adding in too many characters, especially in one of my first works-in-progress. For me, this stemmed from trying to do too much at once in one book. Too many point-of-views and too many subplots. Although I eventually abandoned that particular book, I learned a valuable lesson by spending time trying to figure out who was important to keep in the story and who wasn’t.
As a reader, I’ve encountered this quite a bit. I think fantasy novels tend to have this problem more than other types of novels. When worldbuilding, I think some authors get carried away identifying every official, leader, god/goddess, etc.. I start to get confused about who is who.
So, sometimes, less is more.
Here is a good exercise you can do if you think your story might have too many characters.
Have you read any overpopulated stories recently? What did you think?
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