Interval Training

A consideration in ranking your characters is: how often do they appear? This might seem to be an obvious point, but I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I’ve edited in which a character pops up out of nowhere after a mighty long siesta to play a key role in an important story event. As a reader, I react with surprise, if not indignation. I’d pretty much forgotten that character, and now he’s supposed to be crucial?

When I raise this point, many authors become confused. How could you forget Minnie? I love Minnie. What they don’t understand is that the characters are in competition with each other for the reader’s attention. Once we start to become immersed in the story arc of one character, the others recede into the background. You need to keep rotating the characters so they all stay as fresh and vital in our minds. The longer a character sits on the sidelines, the less we care about her.

Here’s where simple arithmetic can stand you in good stead. Start with the useful concept of “interval.” How long has it been since that character last appeared? I don’t mean just in the background of a scene, but in an active way. This point applies especially to your protagonist. You don’t want him sitting on the sidelines for hardly any intervals at all. If he’s not connected to the main plot for several chapters, you better reconfigure the book so he is. When a character lies fallow, the reader is going to assume that the character doesn’t matter as much—because the author obviously doesn’t think he’s important.

The more important the character, the smaller the interval should be. If she’s a major supporting character, she should not be absent for more than 30 pages at a time. If the character is more minor, maybe a 40-50 page lapse will be fine. That’s about how long the reader’s attention span lasts.

Exercise: Draw up a chart with three columns. At the top write the name of the character. Above the far left column, write “Ch” for the chapter number and then list them. Above the second, write “Pages,” and in each cell write the page numbers of that chapter (e.g., 23-28). In the third, write “Interval,” and then list how long it’s been since Character X has done anything active in the book. You may surprise yourself. If the interval is very long, try to find a place at your chosen interval limit during that long gap and give that character something useful to do. If need be, substitute that character for another one already in a scene.

“The principle I always go on in writing a novel is to think of the characters in terms of actors in a play. I say to myself, if a big name were playing this part, and if he found that after a strong first act he had practically nothing to do in the second act, he would walk out.”        
—P. G. Wodehouse

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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