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?
Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my newest book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.
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