Peopling Your Story
(My apologies: I don’t have the audio version of this post this week. If you’d like one, please contact me and I’ll create one and post it. Thanks for your understanding.)
How many people are in your books? To write a novel involves creating sometimes forty or fifty people. But who are they and just how much does a reader need to know about each one of them?
It’s rare that there are fewer than ten people in a novel. Unless your story takes place on a deserted island, there are going to be a lot of secondary and tertiary characters who will make up the world of your story. How many there are and how well we get to know them is up to you and how important they are.
Obviously, we are going to get to know the protagonist(s) very well. You’ve got to know everything about them—where they come from, what they want out of life, what their wound is and how it colors how they see the world, and let’s not forget what they look like and how they speak if they have any particular verbal ticks or peculiarities to their speech that will make them stand out from the other characters.
Your secondary characters are the people who support your protagonists: their parents (if they’re close or young), their siblings (again, if they’re close), their best friends. It’s extremely important that your protagonist have at least one person in whom they can confide so that they can talk out their problems and the reader can learn how they feel about them without there being too much internal monologue.
But how much should you know about these secondary characters? I would think that you would know nearly as much about them as you do the protagonists. Perhaps you don’t need to know their internal wound—unless it impacts the protagonist and/or the story directly. And both their internal and external goal, motivation, and conflict aren’t as important as that of the protagonist, but you should still generally know what they are.
The tertiary characters are everyone else who has a speaking role. This could be townspeople, casual acquaintances, staff of the household, really anyone and everyone who your protagonists interact with. They are also, to me, very interesting people because they are like the scenery: they color the world, make it come alive, and give it character (no pun intended).
Frequently, they too have goals that are useful for you to be aware of. They also need to have distinct personalities, but naturally, you’re not going to spend a paragraph giving us their backstory or telling us all about their life. No, you must describe who they are in a few words only and allow their personality and goals to come through whatever dialogue they have and how others speak about them.
Here’s an example from one of my recent books, In Lieu of a Princess:
“Please allow me to introduce you to some of my particular friends, Lady Findlater and Lady Wraxley.” She walked Lou and Lord Melfield over to two older ladies, each wearing impressive turbans and sour expressions.
Immediately you know what sort of women they are. Through what the protagonists say about them, we learn that they are notorious gossips and sticklers for proper behavior—but maybe you had guessed that already.
When you’re considering your tertiary characters, it’s best to try to keep them to a minimum if at all possible. If you introduce too many characters to your reader, they are bound to forget them quickly or simply become confused as to who is important and needs to be remembered, and who isn’t.
In every world (both your fiction one and the real one) there are many, many people with whom we don’t interact. These people are everyone from the street sweeper to the cop passing by on his patrol. They are considered even more so as scenery than the tertiary characters. They are just there for the protagonist to wade through at a ball or pass by as they are walking down the street.
So, how many people are there in your novel? Are there too many? Not quite enough to fill out the world? Are they described well enough so that the reader knows who they are without boring the reader with unnecessary information? Consider these people and why they are there and enjoy their presence. They make your story so much more interesting.