Jilly: Do I Really Need All These People?

All These PeopleDo you enjoy stories with a large cast of supporting characters, or do you prefer ones with a narrower, more concentrated focus?

I’ve been battling my inner editor this week. I got to the point in my WIP where the heroine and hero butt heads for the first time. My heroine desperately needs help, and the hero’s father is the only person who can provide it. Unfortunately, giving her the help she needs will put the hero’s entire family in mortal danger, so the hero is absolutely not going to let her go there – until he discovers a compelling reason why he must (took me ages to figure out one strong enough) 🙂 .

Once I’d got both the hero and heroine answering the call to action together, I knew I had to bring in the hero’s father. My inner editor started to niggle a little, worrying about whether having the hero’s dad on his team diminishes the hero in any way. Does it undermine his alpha status, make him less heroic, less attractive, or less sexy? I decided it was fine, because the hero is clearly the leader and decision maker. Dad is a crucial resource, he’s the blueprint for the hero’s moral compass, and he’s an important and interesting character in his own right.

The real trouble started when I tried to block out the scene between the heroine, the hero, and Dad. Dad is an old soldier, and he’s spent most of his life selecting men, training them and building teams. He lost the high-profile role he loved because Backstory, and since then he’s been officially retired. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that there is no way Dad would ever just quit and spend his time gardening. He’d still have a team, but that team would be his family – his wife, his two sons, two daughters, and the hero’s two ex-soldier sidekicks.

That led me to the realisation that the scene (and the story) couldn’t just be Heroine v Hero & Dad. What happens next must be a matter for the hero’s entire family. They are all being put at risk, so they must be all be informed and willing participants in the action, with clear roles to play, otherwise the hero (and his dad) are a pair of asshats and no better than the antagonist.

I should add that said antagonist also has a shadowy mentor and three henchmen.

I did a quick tally, and as the body count started to climb my inner editor went into meltdown. Even if I drip-feed these people into the story, that’s a lot of characters for the reader to get their head around, and if they’re active enough to be worth naming, they’ll be eating up space that could otherwise be used for the hero and heroine.

I went for a long walk and spent most of it trying to decide whether to go back to the drawing board. In the end, I decided that this is the discovery draft, which means it is no place for my inner editor or so-called craft rules. Community is a big part of who the hero is, so I should do my best to discover who these people are and why my Girls want them in the story. If necessary, I can take them out in the re-write.

So this week I’ll be spending time with a whole crowd of new characters, trying to figure out who they are, what they want, and how they contribute to the story.

Do you enjoy stories with strong elements of community and a large cast of characters, as long as those characters are making an active contribution to the story and not just hanging around being colorful? What do you like about them?

If they’re not your thing, why not?

5 thoughts on “Jilly: Do I Really Need All These People?

  1. Oh my goodness, characters are constantly coming into my work. I like reading multi-character stories, and I like writing them. I never worry too much about them, as long as I can write them in such a way that when I read the second draft, I know just who is speaking to whom. If I read over my work and realize I have so many people that I have untagged, orphaned dialog, I know I have a problem.

    Craft rules are for fixing problems, right? My mom always used to say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And how can we tell if it’s broken if it isn’t even on the page yet?

    Well, all that’s rhetorical. There might be a reason why you have to step back and think about this before you write. So, listen to that voice that’s pitching a fit. But if the voice is saying, “But it doesn’t follow any rules!” then send the voice to Middlemarch or anything by Tolstoy . . . .

    Keep writing!

  2. In the first draft of The Demon Deals the Cards, I stuck in a bunch of characters that I felt were needed to run the Clinic, although they didn’t really serve any purpose in the story. During the revision process, I removed or blended a lot of them. You could not, now, actually run a clinic with the pared down staff I’ve given Dara, but the book is a lot easier to follow. And, when I get a content editor to look at it, she may suggest further paring.

    But it doesn’t have to happen in the first draft. Maybe you should try writing it with every character who walks out on stage, then trim them later.

    • Thanks, ladies. Instinctively I feel I have too many characters, but they all seem to belong so I think you’re right – I’ll plan to keep them all until I get the first draft written, and then see who justifies their place on the page and who doesn’t, and whether any of the ones worth keeping can be blended.

      I’ve spent so long in editing mode, I’m finding it really hard to let go without second-guessing myself.

  3. Yes, I agree, keep going. A couple of thoughts: 1. I think a story like this has more characters than contemporary romance (I don’t know why I think this, I just do!). 2. Might be worth doing a character count in the first Kate Daniels. I know that the story and genre are a bit different, but for me it feels like a good (successful) reference point for you for this.

    Most importantly – just keep going 🙂

    • I have the same instinct about more characters, Rachel, and about writing the story in first person – never tried it before but instinctively both choices seem to suit this heroine and subgenre. Guess I’m in for an interesting day tomorrow, wrangling the crowd 🙂 .

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