Characters are the lifeblood of narrative. Some stories demand a large character count, but managing these many viewpoints can get not only messy for the writer but confusing for the reader.

Incorporating multiple points of view in the same narrative, a frequent device used in third-person omniscient perspective, invokes some interesting questions. First off, who are the important characters? Who should the reader be listening to at any given time? Who should the reader get close to, and who’s driving this story?

Angela Flournoy handles these techniques in her novel The Turner House, a finalist for the National Book Award. She shared her insight about writing with many characters in her lecture for The University of Iowa’s course: How Writers Write Fiction 2015.

In tackling this tricky technique, Flournoy said, “[O]ne thing you learn when you grow up in a big family is who’s important? Who, especially as you’re younger, whose concerns need to be met immediately? Whose discipline is kind of more pressing that you are concerned about? Those are all things that, very young, you learn how to prioritize.” She advised the use of a literal map of characters, developing a clear hierarchy for reference.

To help determine this structure, consider asking which characters have the strongest narrative potential. Who has the most to lose? Who has the most to learn? Who will be in a position to affect change? Thematic potential is another factor in importance. Whose perspective is valuable to the theme? Which characters can display a unique and compelling perspective on the bigger questions? While this hierarchy may never be expressly drawn out for readers, having the relationships clear during production will at least prevent confusion on the part of the writer.

Once those tiers are clearly drawn, she suggests two tools for demonstrating to the reader which character is most important at any given time. Her first is interiority.

Interiority, the way Flournoy describes it, is the measure of the detail provided about the character. The more important the person, the deeper the details shared both about them and by them to the reader. A more important character would share intimate thoughts, crucial memories, and complex observations. While a lesser character may still think, remember, or observe, their details would reveal less about them, accomplished by the author limiting their effect on the story to surface level. This doesn’t mean the characters should be less colorful or appealing. As devices, the important characters have more meaning to convey than those further down the hierarchy.

Flouroy’s second tool for guiding readers through a large character cast is quality of conflict. A fun way to envision this element of character is to consider the roles of each individual as though you were assigning roles in a film. Which characters influence the plot directly? Which characters have the strongest arcs? More important characters have higher quality conflicts, those which weigh into the major plot line. They may also have a high quality thematic plot, one that explores the message of the story in greater depth. Lower tier characters may still weigh in, but not to the highest degree. Some may have conflicts no deeper than making a good appearance at a party, or executing their job to their best ability. Characters benefit from their involvement in some kind of conflict, but the quality helps signal to the reader who should be the center of attention even when a scene is crowded.

We finish up with this gem shared when Flouroy described how she approached this challenge: “[I]f you’re like me, what you do is you read a whole bunch of books that do what you want to do right.” Stylistic research, not just factual research, benefits writers of all levels. See who has done what you strive to do. Study their method and use that to fuel your own unique twist.

 

 

Flouroy, Angela. “Character and Dialogue.” How Writers Write Fiction 2015. 9 Oct. 2015. Lecture.

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