The world is full of people. Depending on our situation or lifestyle, we might come into contact with as many as hundreds of people every week, or as few as a dozen. Few people manage to live without human contact of any kind. For me, I have about five different places I might find myself on a given day where the number of people around me meets or exceeds a hundred. When I’m not with my family, I’m probably out in one of these areas, interacting with people.
Assuming I have five different social circles, each with a hundred people, that means I see five hundred people per week. A couple overlap, and my family intermingles with these circles, but that’s the general figure. Five hundred faces I see every week. Five hundred people with completely different lives, who think thoughts wholly unknown to me. I know many of their names, and can name the recognizable traits that allow me to tell them apart, but these are five hundred acquaintances, with some friends scattered among them.
How many people does your main character see in a week?
According to many books, people should only truly speak with a dozen characters along the course of a story, which could take anywhere from a minute to years. If you went by my writing, one’s social circles should never exceed five.
But that’s not realistic. Any book worth its salt will go far beyond this, and they often do. The people who surround the main character, but have nothing to do with the plot, go unnamed except for job titles. The shopkeeper, the waitress, the governor. They’re faces everyone recognizes, but no one truly knows.
No one knows them because we don’t have the time. The main character is important here, and for the plot to progress, we need to know her best friend, her boyfriend, and the mean girl in school— with a couple other side characters like teachers or the mean girl’s cronies, you have a cast that is sufficiently fleshed out to tell the main character’s story. It’s enough… but it’s not perfect.
Who are the mean girl’s cronies? Do they have names? Do they have boyfriends/girlfriends/friends at all beyond the mean girl? What do they excel at, what do they fail at, what are their hobbies? This is beginning to sound like a character questionnaire, but before you get bored, think about it. We come into contact with hundreds of people every week. Are you telling me that in all these interactions, you never notice a thing about people except that they are present? People notice things. Most of those things don’t matter, but they sketch a person so that we can recognize them the next time we see them.
The same happens with characters. All of these walk-on characters, faces in the crowd, have personalities and lives of their own. The main character will notice something about them.
Must you include everything the main character might notice? Must you include a full character dossier, backstory and all, in the middle of an argument between the main character and the mean girl? Of course not. The walk-on characters aren’t the important ones here. That isn’t to say, however, that they are not important.
I’ll get to the point. Large casts are realistic in stories, generally speaking. Occasionally, a story cannot be told without a large cast. That large cast consists of many of the hundreds of people the main character sees in a week, and by bringing them out into the light a little bit, the author can add an air of realism and inhabitance to the setting. Do people actually live in this fantasy world, or is it just Bill and Dave on their quest for the Mayonnaise Spreader of the Apocalypse? Of course people live here. Here’s one: Connie, the shepherdess who stares at them, licking her lips loudly, but never speaks. Do you need the backstory? Do you need a separate plot line for Bill to slowly pry Connie’s shell apart and see the talented and bold singer/songwriter within? Trust me, nobody needs that. Instead, in one line, you can give enough of a character sketch that Connie is real, with a personality and a life, without taking pages to explain her. With walk-ons, you are not painting. You are sketching. But if you sketch by writing “[shepherdess here]”, you’re doing it wrong.
Maggie Stiefvater excels at this. One of the beautiful parts of her standalone novel The Scorpio Races is the small island dynamic that pervades the story— the idea that everyone knows everybody else, but never well enough to be true friends. Through gossip and seeing each other on the streets, they know enough that they can form opinions. That dynamic exhibits itself through one-line characterization, exactly what I did with Connie and several of the gargoyles in A Death of Stone. By describing a small part of the character, or giving a tiny anecdote, Stiefvater characterizes hundreds of people without once taking away from the plot.
Occasionally, a large cast means a lot of main characters. Rather than a single main character who interacts with five hundred people, you have eight main characters, twenty side characters, and the same five hundred walk-ons. Even if you only work on characterizing the main characters, you’re going to have pages of boring explanation. That won’t work. “But,” you protest, “that exposition is necessary if anyone is going to understand the character’s actions and dialogue later— when they say this, they’re referencing this facet of their personality, which you just brutally cut because the explanation was too long. Thanks a lot.”
The thing about one-line characterization is that it can always expand. One line is all you need to sketch a functional character— as they act and speak, the rest fills itself in, until all that’s left is a tragic backstory that you can air at the emotionally opportune moment. One line at the beginning characterizes initially, then another one-liner fills in, followed by another, and another. For walk-ons, you only want a couple one-liners after the initial characterization, to reinforce things. (In Connie’s example, Bill and Dave might try to speak to her, but she stays silent— then, halfway through the conversation, she smacks her lips again. The characterization is reinforced.)
With a side character, those one-liners will continue to pop up through the story, as they appear. Each time, it strengthens and broadens the idea of the character. With walk-ons, you might only reinforce the initial characterization, but with a side character, you’ll highlight another facet of their personality. If Connie were to stick with the quest for a little while, eventually we might find that she laughs far too hard at really bad jokes. It doesn’t come naturally to the initial characterization, so rather than reinforcing it, it expands it.
Lastly, with a main character, the initial characterization will expand almost constantly until the sketch has become a painting. Their actions, their dialogue, their thoughts, all conspire to shape the reader’s perception of them. Everything works together to paint the picture, but it all begins with the one line, which characterizes just enough that the story can commence.
Joss Whedon is a master of the one-liner for everyone, in his own film way. Using one character to describe another in one sentence, he does the initial characterization, then lets things follow from there. With his characters, you can never tell whether they’re the main character or a side character or a walk-on, because he’ll begin them all with one line, and continue to characterize them all gradually. One might get more than another, but it all blends until you can’t really tell whether Malcolm Reynolds is the main character of Firefly, or if it’s Simon, or Zoe, or Inara. They’re all main characters. They’re all side characters. Every episode, their roles change, but every episode, they’re characterized line by line.
This is what I attempted in A Death of Stone last week. According to most, this is what worked best in A Death of Stone last week. It’s something that, with a little practice, adds layers to any story. It’s easy to try. Go for it, and tell me how it works.