Too Many D*cks on the Dance Floor: Doing More with Less

In my own writing, I don’t usually work with a large cast of characters. I like simple stories that are more or less stripped down to their bare essentials. Whenever I write a scene that has more than two characters, I tend to get worried about whether or not everyone is getting equal billing.

Has the third wheel gotten enough lines? Do they even have anything to add at this point? Will the reader wonder where they’ve gone if I don’t mention them soon? It’s a point of stress for me that I try to avoid whenever I can.

That being said, I see absolutely no reason I can’t offer you advice on the topic. Just think about it like someone with agoraphobia giving you tips on how to enjoy the great outdoors. At the very least, it could be entertaining. And, really, what else do you have to do for the next five minutes?

(Most likely the answer is a lot of other things, but for now let’s pretend your schedule’s wide open.) So buckle up. Here we go.

When thinking about working with a large cast of characters, you should give serious consideration to the function of each character within your story. It’s a lot like one of those movies where someone’s planning a bank heist.

You need the guy with the plan. He’s going to be the brains of the operation. He knows the ins-and-outs of the job. He’s memorized the guards’ schedules, he knows when the armored car arrives, and he’s studied the police response times for that area.

Then you’ve got the driver of your getaway car who is also your eyes outside, your point man inside the bank, one or two heavies for crowd control, and then someone who knows how to get into the vault. You’ve got just enough bodies to get the job down, with specific jobs for each, and not a soul more.   

You should be just as efficient when planning your story. Give every character a job, or a purpose, and when you end up with more characters than things you need to accomplish, cut those who remain. They’re dead weight, and they’ll be a drag on your story.

Now I understand stories often have people in the background, those who serve as the “extras” on a movie set. I’m not saying cut them. I’m just saying I don’t give a damn about them. They are the equivalent of living scenery.

The waitresses, pedestrians, and crossing guards who populate your story are fine where they are, just don’t give them speaking parts. If someone has something to say, it better be important and they better add something to the plot. Otherwise, get them the hell out of my face. They’re wasting my time.

For those character who do make the cut and manage to score a few lines in your opus, do your best to make them distinct. Being able to immediately tell who is speaking is just as important as the substance of their words.

To make this easier on yourself, there are a few different approaches you can try. The first is to give each character unique physical attributes or some kind of “tag” and work those descriptions into physical action that accompanies dialogue.

For example, in the novel I’m currently writing, I have a scene with a stripper who’s wearing light-up, blinking pasties. Most of her dialogue is accompanied with *Blink, blink. Blink, blink.* It’s distracting, to both the reader and the other characters in the scene, and it’s meant to be, but you’re never confused as to who’s talking.

Another thing you can do is take those physical attributes and derive a nickname for your character based on his or her appearance. Not only does this help the reader immediately identify who’s talking, but every time you read that nickname, the character’s physical description is reinforced.

The movie The Sandlot does a great job with this. The main character of the film is often referred to by his last name, Smalls, and guess what? He’s a short, awkward kid who doesn’t know the first thing about baseball but desperately wants to be part of the group that hangs out at the sandlot.

You’ve also got Ham, the chubby, loud-mouthed catcher, and Squints, a smart-ass who wears thick-framed glasses and has a crush on the leggy, blonde lifeguard. Now I know I’m comparing movies to novels here, but I think these descriptors would still hold up on the page. With names like Ham and Squints, you’re probably not going to get lost in a conversation.

Finally, if you’re looking for a quick and dirty fix to helping your reader avoid confusion, you might give your characters verbal ticks. Again paying homage to The Sandlot, you’ve got a couple kids on the team whose nicknames are “Repeat” and “Yeah-Yeah.” As indicating by the names, Repeat largely repeats anything his older brother says, and Yeah-Yeah responds to most suggestions by saying, “Yeah, Yeah” before continuing to speak.

I know other people who have approached this technique by giving their characters a stutter or other speech impediment. Obviously this could work, but I would caution you against this approach unless you feel it’s absolutely necessary for your character. Speaking from my own experience, this type of dialogue can become very tiresome to read.

I’m not saying don’t do it. I’m just saying understand the risks. Some days we all feel a little lazy, and you don’t want to give us any excuse to put down your book.

So to recap:

Step one—Cull your cast of characters like it’s your Facebook friends list and you’re having a bad day. Anybody left over better bring something to the table.

Step two—Treat the survivors like your special little children, and find a way to make them memorable.

Piece of cake, right? Now go forth. Be fruitful and multiply. (Story people, I mean.)

(Note: The first half of today’s blog title was just a little shout out to all you Flight of the Conchords fans in the audience. Always remember: You don’t have to be a prostitute. No, no, no, no, no.)

Larry Jenkins is an aspiring Word Pimp. Has laptop, will travel. Let's make this happen, people.

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