Recently I wrote a scene where I had to introduce quite a lot of characters all at once. I don’t like doing these, as it makes the balance between description and pacing much tougher, not to mention increasing the chance of completely confusing the reader. Unfortunately in this case it couldn’t really be avoided, so I did the next best thing – gave it to the raptor to edit.
It turns out that a cinematic imagination has a fundamental flaw in it when writing – it is very easy to write what you ‘see’. In a scene with lots of people, this is not necessarily a good thing at all. The reader doesn’t care that Jimmy is sitting to Steve’s left, and opposite Bob. They care about why Jimmy is secretly furious with Steve for spilling his pint, and that they are both plotting to overthrow Bob because of an ancient grudge over who got the last slice of pie. Unfortunately, if I’m in full writing flow, my brain offers up the picture and not the undercurrent, so that’s what goes down on the page.
I love introducing new characters. You have a (often brief) bit of mystery over who they are and what they mean to the story. I can usually picture them very clearly, and enjoy playing with descriptions so they are fresh and not too detailed (see previous discussions over reader perspective vs author vision). But to introduce six new characters at once is a challenge. You need to get some description in, a distinct voice for each AND an insight into their drives without slowing down the pace or tension of the scene, and without overwhelming the reader.
There’s always one scene in a story (at least – you’re lucky if it stops at one) which causes the writer serious problems like this. In my last book, it was a plot-dump scene (in itself, a problem) in which the central character revealed to his colleagues what was going on. It got so involved and layered that I confused myself. I seem to have learned from that particular mistake in that my own plots no longer make my brain spin, but now we’ve hit the issue of distinct personalities in a tight space.
Given that each of the characters is very loosely based on a real person, you wouldn’t think it would be that challenging. The thing is, characters needs to be a bit larger than life, in order to get off the page. I like layered and complicated characters, because people are layered and complicated, but at the same time you need a personality trait that a reader can use to identify them easily. This, I think, is where archetypes and famous characters from existing literature come in handy. It gives the reader (and sometimes the writer) a bit of a hand in identifying who this person is. As the raptor described one of my newbies, ‘he’s a bit Faramirish’, which crystallized how I should approach him.
So, back to the scene for me. Let’s make sure everyone understands how much trouble Bob is in over that pie…