My husband and I are big-time TV watchers. Each week, we sit down together so that we can get wrapped up in story. The quality of sweeping, epic television has been especially high lately--each Sunday offering up a new episode of Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, or True Blood, a new opportunity, we always hope, to be swept up by interesting characters and the complications of their lives.
It's not always wine and roses, though. Take the latest season of True Blood. I've concluded every episode feeling more muddled than the last. I'm often frankly confused about the way the story plays out. Characters seem inconsistent--Bill Compton swears off Sookie Stackhouse, and then becomes entangled with her again and again. Worse, I often forget the latest plot developments. Are the Authority pro- or anti-mainstreaming? Who set that fire in Terry Bellefleur's house? And what's going on with these fairies, exactly?
In a recent episode, a new plot twist developed--Merlotte's cook Lafayette began having visions--and I moaned into the palms of my hands, "No! No! Too many plots!"
A light went on in my head. In that moment, True Blood, for all its current mess of a story, taught me something valuable about writing fiction.
I never intended to become a writer of epic story. My first trunked novels were intimate family affairs. I stumbled into writing a book with a large cast of characters quite by accident--I just wanted to write a story with a space rebellion, like Star Wars, and didn't quite think through the implications. When Starglass sold and I began to write the sequel, I realized what a difficult task I'd truly undertaken. As is the case with True Blood, I began to wrestle with how to tell every character's story fully, while still balancing the needs of the narrative.
I realized last Sunday, as I watched True Blood with my husband, that I was approaching the question in the wrong way. The key isn't to tell every character's story. In fact, it's for the good of your book--and your reader--if you don't even try.
A large cast of characters has its benefits: it makes your universe feel more diverse, fully-fledged, and real. It's not an altogether bad thing if an author knows what a given minor character is doing in a particular moment in a story; that knowledge means that the author is intimately acquainted with her characters and her world.
However, you don't need to show that knowledge to your audience. It's okay to let certain characters move to prominence--most True Blood fans are not watching the series because they care deeply about Sam's shapeshifter girlfriend, or Terry's war buddies and their problem with an ifrit. They're watching, instead, because they find the central characters and the tensions of their lives compelling.
The keyword might just be "tension." Because focusing equally on minor characters robs your story of narrative tension, forcing you to sacrificing the overall integrity of the plot--the rising and falling tension, the development and resolution of conflict, the very stuff of story--in favor of dividing your readers' attentions between many characters. A plot with integrity gives readers time to breathe, digest, and reflect before it plunges them back into a high-stakes situation. But if you focus equally on your large cast of characters, you have to sacrifice that space in favor of checking in on Andy Bellefleur's fairy problems.
As a writer, you might worry that your audience will grow upset that they haven't seen their favorite character in ages. However, time frittered in a poorly-developed story with your favorite character is really hardly any better. In fact, a small, carefully positioned cameo role by your favorite character can be incredibly powerful after a period of long absence.
(Mad Men fans should know what I'm talking about.)
It's really not necessary for any writer to feel they must spend equal time with all characters. Books (and TV shows) aren't facebook--we're not following simply for status updates. We want overarching plots, rising and falling tensions, conflict, and, above all, stories with integrity. And in order to create those, you have to focus in on your most interesting characters--and give their stories room to breathe.