So far, we've mostly considered scenes with only two or three characters. But suppose your book is going to be immense, with a dozen major characters, each with individual quirks and important roles to play in the plot. Or suppose there are only three major characters in your story, but ten secondary ones whom you don't want the reader to confuse with each other. How quickly should your beginning introduce additional characters, and in what detail?
As a rule of thumb, don't throw too many characters at your reader in the first scene. He'll become confused and irritated. Hold the first scene to three named people, if you can. If it's a crowd scene—a parade, a political rally, a wedding—either let everyone else mill around nameless, or else accept that the reader won't remember who the others are and you'll have to reintroduce them later.
In subsequent scenes, introduce characters only as they come onstage to do something meaningful. Rather than stop the action dead to explain who these people are, give us the bare minimum ("He saw his cousin Joe across the room") and let the character establish himself through some characteristic or significant action. Then we'll be interested enough to absorb his background. ("He couldn't believe what Joe had just done. But, then, Joe had been doing outrageous things all his life. Growing up together in Clayton County, as close as brothers, Joe and he had always ...")
What you want to avoid is introducing each character with an expository capsule biography, as if they were Miss America contestants. ("Lovely Miss Arkansas is a junior at State studying veterinary medicine and music, and hopes for a career working with children in her beautiful hometown of Little Rock.") If it's vital that we know something about a character the minute he enters, give us that information as briefly as possible. ("Dr. Rawlins had been the town's only doctor for twenty years.") But keep it short, and save until relevant the facts that Dr. Rawlins graduated from Yale Medical in 1915, had been a brilliant wartime surgeon but had been gassed at Chateau-Thierry and never fully recovered, and is inexplicably married to the daughter of the town drunk, a shrewish woman who belittles him constantly. Better yet, bring the wife onstage and let us see her shrewishness, if it's relevant.
One effective way to prepare for the entrance of a character who's not in the first scene is to have other characters talk or think about her before she arrives. By chapter eighteen of Anna Karenina, when Anna finally shows up, we're very interested in this woman whom no one can praise enough. Will she really be able to straighten out her brother's troubled family? Will she really be so intelligent and tactful and charming? Our curiosity has been skillfully whetted.
The same tactic can work to prepare for less pivotal characters. If the heroine of a romance novel hears three or four times that her new boss will be very demanding and difficult to work for, when he strides into the office for the first time we already anticipate interesting interactions between them.
How many people, total, can you cram into a story? There's no real answer to that. Long novels, obviously, can include hundreds of characters (consider Gone With the Wind or War and Peace). Short stories should probably concentrate on three or four, at most, to be developed with some individuality. There also may be various unnamed "spear carriers," such as the waitress who takes the protagonist's breakfast order, who don't need to be turned into individuals at all. They're animate furniture in the story, which is fine. Drawing too much attention to their individual quirks and histories might actually work against the story by distracting focus from your major characters. The art of fiction, like the art of stage magicians, is one of directing the audience's attention to what you want them to see.
But if there's no maximum number of characters for a story, there is a minimum. It's almost impossible to write a story with only one character. Without someone to talk to and interact with, the solitary character is reduced to reminiscences, philosophical musings, and speculations. Since none of these happens in story time, the effect is to distance the reader from the story itself. Even Jack London, in his classic "To Build a Fire," included a second character in the form of the dog so that the protagonist, who's trying not to freeze to death in the winter wilderness, could have someone to talk to about his situation.
A short story with two characters is certainly possible, but it, too, isn't easy. Often the two characters get into some snarl or problem, each becomes locked into his position, and you have an impasse. Introducing a third character can provide the catalyst to get things moving again. The third character does something that forces one, or both, of the originals to react, altering his position.
For example, in Flannery O'Connor's story "Everything That Rises Must Converge," Julian and his mother are locked in long-standing battle over practically everything: her racism, his ingratitude, her provincialism, his rudeness, her hat, hisjobless-ness. For the first two-thirds of the story these positions—pathetic, hilarious and appalling—are explored. But the possibility of change only enters the story with the arrival of a third character, the black woman on the bus, whose interactions with Julian's mother lead to events that force both Julian and his mother to actually look at themselves.
If you've started a two-person story and it seems to be going nowhere, think about introducing a catalytic third character.
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