I decided to do the alphabet deal as a way to shake things up here, but recently I was hit by how much I miss talking about writing on this site. So I’m bringing back Writing Wednesdays (in addition to the alphabet thing). This blog isn’t a niche blog — I talk about pretty much everything here. So why not (re)dedicate a day to only talking about the thing I’m constantly thinking about?
Quick aside: I just want to apologize for my inconsistency here. I always get bummed when bloggers I like to read just kind of drop off the face of the Earth. Not because I don’t understand that they’re living their lives, but because I miss hearing from them. Sorry if I’ve made anybody out there feel that way. Even if there’s only one of you.
Today, I thought I’d talk about characters. Note the “s” because I specifically want to address the effect that multiple characters can have on one’s reading experience.
My primary example is a book I haven’t read in a few years: Needful Things by Stephen King. I was Skyping with a friend the other day and we started talking about Mr. King and the turn his writing has taken lately. We agreed that his earlier works are our favorites. She brought up Needful Things and said “I know you don’t care for that one.” She said that because of the (likely overly passionate) way I once expressed my main problem with that story.
First things first — I LOVE Needful Things. The concept, anyway. If you aren’t familiar, it’s a story about a mysterious curio shop that appears in one of King’s favorite fictional towns, Castle Rock, Maine (where Cujo and The Dead Zone and other works of his are also set). The shop contains random objects, each one of which is meant to appeal strongly to certain members of the town. There may be an item or two that catches the eye of two townspeople, but generally each person who comes in becomes fixated on something different. This is crazy brilliant because as a reader, you get to watch as these seemingly ordinary people become deranged over one particular item, and you discover the lengths each person will go to in order to get what they want. Leland Gaunt, the shop’s proprietor, doesn’t charge much for the rare items sold in his store, but he does ask (in addition to money) that a prank be played by the buyer on one of their neighbors. This neighbor is always someone whom the customer already has a tricky history with. As tensions escalate, Gaunt’s aim — to gradually tear the town apart — becomes clear. But he hasn’t targeted Castle Rock alone — this is merely one stop on his tour of destruction. Gaunt is often read as the Devil (not least b/c he tries to make off with the souls of his duped customers). Now not every single person in town is affected; Sheriff Alan Pangborn (a recurring character in King’s books) keeps his head and spends the length of the story trying to save the town from this new corrupting influence.
This story sounds bad-ass, right? It is! But…for me, there are too many characters. The large-ish ensemble cast is something that a few of King’s earlier stories have in common. This is one story in particular where that doesn’t work for me. LOVE the idea and what the story is illustrating about how little it takes for a person to completely relinquish their autonomy, but he often ends his chapters on a cliff-hanger. This is perfect as a way to build suspense, BUT by the time I cycle back around to each character, I need to rebuild my interest in their story. I always do become interested in them again, but that period between my anger and disappointment over leaving the last character and the time when I’m back to enjoying what I’m reading is a critical period. I hate the feeling of starting over again while reading something that I’m really enjoying. King does have mercy on readers from time to time in this story and sometimes continues following the same character for two chapters in a row, but that’s not the norm.
If you want a reader to follow multiple characters, I feel the number should be kept small (as in three at the most) or care should be taken to connect each section to the one before it and the one after. The connector in this story is the shop, right? Each character we’re following has been affected by the shop in one way or another. But that’s not enough. Give the reader a concrete link between sections; something specific, not something every single chapter has in common (I mean, the whole book is about the shop!). This commonality could be a phrase, a gesture, an observation…anything. But something particular. Micro, not macro.
What are your thoughts on lots of characters?
Hope you’re well 🙂