Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Balancing the Number Characters and the Scale of Your World

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

We’re winding down on reader questions (at least the ones that don’t involve guest authors, those are still to come), and I should have the rest answered by end of next week.
Q: How do you match the number of named characters with the sense of scale you are aiming for in your world?
For example, the story I'm trying to tell at the moment involves a fairly closed off community. I originally had a number of different characters but felt that some of them were too similar, so I combined them. Now I feel like the world feels smaller than it should, but I like the number of central characters I have. Do you have any tips for creating a greater sense of scale without also overburdening the reader with a deluge of characters to remember?
My other concern with this is that I imagine my MC would know the names of all the others in the community, but I don't feel the reader necessarily needs to know. They aren't a faceless crowd but equally as individuals they aren't central to the story either.
A: When you think about it, everyone lives in a small community made up by the world that is known and relevant to them. We have a circle of friends, a wider circle or work/school/neighborhood acquaintances, familiar faces we see as we regularly go to the same places. The same thing can apply to this situation.

Consider a classroom. It might just be thirty people, and everyone knows everyone else, but some people will be good friends, others close friends, and the rest will scale between classmates to enemies. Within this community...

Territory will be staked out—some members sit in the back of the room, others in the front, and they'll arrange themselves by social groups when given the opportunity (as in no assigned seats).

There will be social hierarchies.
Leaders and outcasts, varied skills sets and personality traits. Jocks and debate team, honor students and work programs. There will be cultural norms for interacting with these groups, and rules and punishments if those norms aren’t followed.

Common bonds will form among social groups, and they’ll develop their own "language" and views on the world. Nicknames for each other, derogatory names for those they don’t like, ignoring those they don’t care about. What they notice and how they refer to things and people will differ depending on how they fit in that small social community.

An entire world can fit in one single classroom.

You can even take it a step further and expand it to a whole school. Different grades work as larger social groups with rules all their own, and the smaller classroom-sized groups make up that larger grade-sized group. As the size scales up, so do the social groups and the awareness of important groups. Individuals will fade some as the scale increases, and only the most important individuals will be known.

For example, everyone in high school can name the principal, but fewer can name the home ec teacher unless they're part of that home ec group. At a college level, even that changes—few can name the president or dean, but most know who the coach of the big school sport is, and likely the major players. At the largest scales, celebrity is equal to (or greater) than power or influence over that individual’s life. What’s “known” is typically what’s very close or very far, and there’s less in the middle area since it’s just so big.

Try taking this general principle and applying it to your community:
  • What are the different social groups of this community?
  • What are the rules of this community? For the individual groups?
  • What are the normal interactions like for the various groups?
  • What social group does the protagonist belong to?
  • How does the protagonist refer to the people and/or groups in this community?
  • How much interaction with others does the protagonist have?
  • How much interaction does the protagonist want to have?
  • What groups are worth noticing? Ignoring? Avoiding?

Odds are the protagonist isn’t going to have close relationships with everyone in the community, even if they know everyone’s name. He or she will care about the people and things that matter to them, and not think as much about everyone else. “The rest of the class” vs “Bob, Jane, Sally, and Frieda.”

(Here's more on POV and description)

You can also look at the external and geographical elements of a small community to help establish size in the reader’s mind:
  • How big is the community (population and physical size)?
  • How many people are typically in view when someone is outside?
  • How many people does someone see when they're visiting shops, schools, restaurants, etc.?
  • What are the boundaries of this community? Can they be seen from within the center of the community?

Once you get a solid sense of how the protagonist fits into this world, you’ll have a better feel for what details to show and what can be glossed over. I think backgrounding the world building details will be especially valuable in this situation since the protagonist knows everyone and everything.

(Here's more on backgrounding your world building details)

For example, if the community is only fifty people, the protagonist might comment on how the whole town could fit inside a particular room. Or maybe they run the borders of town every morning—all two miles of it. To show the social groups, the protagonist might be aware that they need to act a certain way because a certain group is nearby (such as kids behaving when friends of their parents can see them). A small community might make the protagonist feel watched and unable to be themselves, or they might feel comforted knowing there are no strangers around them.

As for referring to people, the protagonist will likely refer to those who matter and are relevant to the scene by name, title, or role, but if they don’t matter, they’d probably ignore them, or call them by whatever term that group uses. “She stopped talking as we passed the screwups, skipping work again as always. Lousy eavesdroppers.” Maybe you show the protagonist knows people by physical clues, like waving or nodding, or having other characters call them by name. Gossip could also work to show the small nature of the community, with everyone knowing everyone else's business.

I’d suggest establishing the parameters of this community as early as feasibly possible (don’t force it into the story, but look for a good spot early on). Maybe find a scene that lets you reference the size, or sets up the general scale, something that says “small community” to the reader so they start seeing all the details from that perspective. For example:
“All six of us huddled in the cave” could show this is a group of only six people within the boundaries of a cave.
“Jake threw rocks at the sigh that read ‘Welcome to Millburg—population 235’” could show this is a small town of 235 people.
“On Level Nine, everybody knew your business” could suggest a small group who knows everyone else without actually saying how big or how many.

Once readers know the community is small, they’ll assume all the tropes and default details that go with “small community.” If there’s anything in your world that doesn’t fit those common tropes, those would be the things to get across right away and set the right expectations.

(Here's more on describing what readers won't assume) 

Also let the protagonist think on a scale that fits the world. For example, they might walk into a ten-by-ten-foot bedroom and think, “Wow, all the space for one person?” and suggest that space is tight in this world. But if there’s a lot of physical space but few people, a family of three might live in a huge house or have acres of land and no neighbors. Seeing someone outside of designated gathering places might be a strange occurrence.

Point of view will be key here, as the POV character will clue readers in on what’s normal in this world and how it works. The more you as the author can see through that character’s eyes (even if it’s written in omniscient), the more you’ll know how someone in that community sees the world around them.

One book you might check out as an example is Amy Christine Parker’s Gated. It takes place in a cult’s compound with a smaller community. Another example is The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen, set in a small town that seals itself off from the world during a deadly flu epidemic. Either of these might give you some insights on how to achieve a similar sense of scale in your own work.

Can anyone recommend any other books with small communities?

Find out more about setting and description in my book, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems.
Go step-by-step through setting and description-related issues, such as weak world building, heavy infodumping, told prose, awkward stage direction, inconsistent tone and mood, and overwritten descriptions. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Choose the right details to bring your setting and world to life
  • Craft strong descriptions without overwriting
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Create compelling emotional layers that reflect the tone and mood of your scenes
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Fixing Setting & Description Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting immersive settings and worlds that draw readers into your story and keep them there.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Thanks so much. Your posts are so informative, and this one is especially pertinent to my WIP, which takes place in an off-grid community in the desert, near a well-known tourist town. I've been struggling a bit with this very issue. Your example of how people in different social hangouts relate to each other in school is really useful. You've also confirmed some of my instincts. Good stuff!

  2. One of my writing projects has a small community. Although I've been doing okay feeling it out as I write the 1st draft, I'm pretty sure I'll need to do more digging into how the town works and the general roles of the characters. This is going to be so helpful. Thank you.

  3. I thought of the Maze Runner. That is a small community that grows by one per month...until everything changes.Suzanne, your description made me think of the small community in The Host.

  4. This post is excellent (as always) and comes just following an edit I am doing on a novel with a very small cast of characters.

    The struggle was how to tie the group together through various unforeseen events, while having each perform an emotional function in the story.

    I suggested setting up some seemingly predictable anchoring environments for a few peripheral characters, allowing their presence to define the 'world' parameters/barriers. For example, the guy who always hesitates about getting on the bus with you, then finally does one day and the checkout gal at the local grocery, who wears a name tag that bears a name that just doesn't fit her face, and never looks you in the eye.

    I'm forwarding your post to my author client, as we're moving beyond developmental now and I think it will solidify (validate? :D ) some of the decisions that have been made.

    Thanks!! Keep-em coming.