Do the Math

Many older authors, more likely male, decide to write novels because they have experience in an interesting field. The promise and then execution of infusing past experiences with characters filled with the author’s thoughts is exciting and satisfying. When I read the scenes, I can feel the actors brimming with brio or malice or calm collectedness, at least temporarily, before I am whisked away to another experience. 

It has always surprised me that an author who is obviously intelligent can read novels dominated by a single character, and yet when they write, their book’s energies are dispersed among a cast of dozens. While real life does demand multiple players, the author ignores the fact that each character in a novel has a possible emotional valence for the reader. When too many players are thrown at the reader, you can end up with too many functionaries that the reader does not care about. 

How many functionaries do you have? You can run the numbers and find out. Start off by assigning a number to each character who plays an active role in a scene. Although you can have group scenes, you’ll usually find that a maximum of three characters are featured. Then put those numbers in a chart with five columns. One is for the characters, by their numbers. The second tracks how many scenes a character appears in. You can use hash marks in groups of five. The third is a wider column that charts the number of pages that elapse in between each appearance by a character. By way of illustration, that column might look like: 15, 20, 22, 34, etc. Fourth, another wide column that charts the number of pages for each scene in which a character appears. That is, count how long the scenes are: 5, 7, 8, 5, etc. Finally, a skinny column in which you add up the total pages for each character.

This exercise in story structure can reveal interesting insights. First, how many characters in total did you count? When you consider that a reader will identify strongly with only 7-8 characters, how many do you have? If you have 25-50 characters, how thin are you spreading yourself? Worse, if you have several dozen point-of-view characters, how much do you think the reader is going to care about any of them?

Now look at the gaps between scenes. If a character is gone too long, the reader tends to forget about them. I’ll use a rough rule of thumb regarding a reader’s attention span. I would allow a gap of no more than 20-25 pages for a protagonist, 30-35 pages for a main character, and no more than 40-50 pages for a minor character who will play a key role later in the book. Do any alarming numbers jump out at you?

Finally, look at the total number of pages in the fifth column. Does your lead character clearly have a larger number than all the rest? How many characters have roughly the same number of pages? Remember, you want only 6-7 (excluding the protagonist). Do you have dozens? How much sympathy or antipathy does the reader have to dole out for each?

“When you have mastered numbers, you will in fact no longer be reading numbers, any more than you read words when reading books. You will be reading meanings.”  —W. E. B. Du Bois

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.