Crowd Control in Fiction

I am really a great fan of author Joanna Trollope – her novels are of the “I can’t put it down” variety.
Nevertheless, one I just read titled “Friday Nights” was a great disappointment to me. It was , as always, beautifully written, but the cast of characters was overwhelming. Beginning with a group of six women who spend Friday nights together, gradually we are introduced to siblings, children, lovers, business partners until I spent the whole book flipping backwards to understand who went with whom. I was surprised that such a distinguished author could have fallen into this trap.

Overpopulated fiction can be so confusing that readers put the story down. On the other hand, too few characters can seem claustrophobic or boring. You need the exact right number. For instance, in a speaking scene, limit the dialogue to characters who genuinely need to be present.

So, to answer the question “How many characters should you have in a scene?” the answer is two-fold. For those with no speaking parts, like the waitress or bar-tender, you can have quite a few. For those with speaking parts, the fewest number who have a reason to be there. Orient readers to all the characters’ positions, to tell them who is present, so they don’t wonder half-way through the scene, where the character suddenly came from. Give your characters actions as well as speech to aid in visualization. Don’t let them go too long without saying or doing something. They must chime in periodically so we don’t forget who is there.

The ideal for a short story is the same as for a scene… the fewest number to carry out the plot. The shorter the story, the fewer characters. That gives you more wordage to develop each one of them. Novels have more space, so you have more leeway. These decisions are not difficult once you’ve had some practice.
Exercise some crowd control and the reader will benefit through increased pleasure in your stories.

Just room for a poem. I wrote this sadly, in memory of my friend Sonya, who passed away and will always be missed. It’s in free verse, which is less constricting than rhymed, when strong emotions are involved.


Many people enter and leave our lives.
For a short spell, they amuse,
They add novelty,
They open new doors
And we warm to them.
Then they are gone –
Briefly missed
But soon forgotten.

With you, it was always different.
You were there for me
Not just to share a joke,
To fill an empty hour
With companionship …
It was to you I turned
When grief washed over me,
When life was a battle
And some days were dark
With loss.

You never let me down.
Like the other half
Of a pair of scissors
We worked together
To produce this constant, sustaining glow
That let me know
You were my friend – for always!

(Rest in peace, Sonya)


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