One thing that I always remind people who send stories to me, or who ask me to comment on their work, especially if it is a long piece, is that there is a certain amount of danger involved with “too many cool things”.
While we don’t exactly get overwhelmed by explosions, cursing, violence, and rape, the reality is that the more you put in to a story, the less likely any one part of it is going to have the kind of impact you are looking for it to. This parallels what I said in an earlier entry, that there is such a thing as too much complexity, even in an 80,000 word novel.
The reason War and Peace is so difficult for most people isn’t the length or the words themselves, it’s keeping track of a thousand different characters and dozens of events, some of which are not related to each other at all. And, let’s be honest, your novel probably isn’t going to be a classic of Russian literature.
Most of the time, I try and focus on one or two characters, even in a long piece, and let the smaller cast experience more. Giant legions of Twitter followers and hundreds of Facebook friends aside, most events in any one individual’s life only involve a few people anyway.
Since I mentioned that I would eventually expand on my rant about “compelling background stories”, now seems to be a good time to explore my conception of a well-developed character.
Santiago, from The Old Man and the Sea, has always been one of the most interesting protagonists that I have encountered. The beauty of the character is in his simplicity. What the reader knows about him is that he is poor, old, and that he fishes in the open water off the coast of Cuba. It sounds like I am over-generalizing again, but that is almost entirely the extent of the background we are given about his character. And yet, no intelligent critic would ever dare to suggest that the old man is one-dimensional or weak. Even if you do, it is often with the understanding that the story itself is more like a parable, or an ancient myth, passed down in the telling. Yet, it is neither of those things; it is an intensely personal revelation of the profundity of the human soul and the majesty of trying circumstance.
In fact, in the story, he is the kind of character that a creative writing major would likely devote seven or eight pages of blasé exposition to. Thankfully, Hemingway ignored the impulse, and shrank the narrative until we had exactly what we needed.
There are only two characters in the book; three if you count the marlin. And they are the only characters that you need to tell that story. It is my contention that if we were all a little more willing to build stories that way, we would all have far more interesting stories to share.