Thursday, December 6, 2012

Crowd Control

This post first published here on September 11, 2008 and we're happy to share it with you again.
Crowds can be a problem. Sometimes they're exciting, other times deadly. That's why professionals experienced in crowd control are hired to guard sporting events and concerts.

Crowded restaurants mean long waits. Crowded sidewalks force you to slow down, which is aggravating when you're in a hurry. Crowded streets are a nightmare and can cause accidents.

Likewise, when I walk into a crowded room, I find it more difficult to connect with any of the individuals. It takes me a while to single out someone and carry on a meaningful conversation.

It's not much different in a manuscript. Especially in the first few chapters, a crowd gets in the way. Making the reader try to remember each character slows down the pace and makes the novel confusing and a bother to read. Readers forget who the people are and what their roles are. It's so much easier to put down a book like that and go to one that's easier to follow.

Don't let that happen to your book. Unless you're very skilled and experienced, it's best to introduce only a few characters at the start of your novel. Let your reader get acquainted with them and bond with them. Then, introduce other characters, but not all at once.

Don't make it hard for the reader to read your book. Use crowd control.

All the best,

Morgan Mandel


  1. Totally agree with you Morgan. I've been known to flip back through the book trying to find a character since I can't remember who he is or how he's involved in the story. I've read books with so many characters, I've longed for a list of them and their relationships. Some books have several characters with names so similar, I can't keep them apart.

    And sometimes I just give up and don't finish reading.

  2. And, yes, then throw in names to confuse the issue.... I can't remember them at parties or in books. Naming is so important, and we'll have a post about that coming up soon.

    Morgan, I'm loving your posts here!


  3. Morgan,
    You're so right. If I get overwhelmed with too many characters too soon, I'm liable to quit reading.

    I actually created a chart of characters for a novel based on the author's family history. He wrote the story as fiction because his ancestors were slaves, and historical records were incomplete. He had to guess on some things, but he tried very hard to make it completely accurate. He insisted on using the real names, and his family tended to repeat names through the generations so there were several people with the same or nearly the same name as well as a number with similar names. I tried to convince him to change some of the names, but he wanted the book to be a tribute and memory of real people. So I created a chart listing all the characters alphabetically by first name with a brief description of who they were and their relationship to other characters (wife of X, daughter of A and B, sister of Z, etc.)

  4. I try to keep my characters to a minimum unless I'm writing a story that calls for a large cast. Ten I make three or four main characters and turn the rest into support characters. Some development as people to personalize them, but they are mostly there to interact with, set the mood and move the plot along.

  5. Hi, Morgan,

    When I'm coaching children's writers I tell them they need to let the reader know right away who is telling the story - that is, whose story is this, who is the point of view character?

    Just as you say you single out someone in a crowd at an event where you don't know anyone, the reader singles out this main character and starts rooting for him or her right at the start of the story. If the reader can't FIND this person, chances are, he or she won't keep reading.

    Another way to set the characters apart from each other and make them more distinctive is to give them character tags - some physical mannerism or characteristic, or a way of doing something that sets them apart from each other. A book that does this brilliantly is A CROOKED KIND OF PERFECT by Linda Urban. There is NO WAY the reader will get confused about which character is speaking, taking action, etc.

    Happy writing!

    Suzanne Lieurance
    The Working Writer's Coach
    "When Your Pen Won't Budge, Read The Morning Nudge"

  6. Great advice, Morgan. I wish writers like Clancy would heed this advice. One of the best at handling lots of characters is Harlan Coben. I'm reading Promise Me right now and as the story has progressed I have met the central character, Myron, his friend Win, his girlfriend, his parents, his business partner, and a host of other characters, but they were all introduced slowly, with no great pause for backstory or physical description. Dennis Lahane is also great at just letting the characters "step on stage."

  7. I always issue a program with my books ... you can't recognize your protagonist without a program (number 24 in Headwind).

  8. Great reminder about the hazards of introducing too many characters in the beginning of your story. Crowd control is, indeed, essential. Excellent post and well worth this second read.

  9. This is especially tricky in the case of an adventure story featuring a group of kids, a la Stand By Me. It can get so rhythmically clunky reporting in on every single person's actions and reactions. In such instance, I say subdivide and conquer!

  10. I know how hard it is to keep track of names and people in real life, and that's a good reason why not to make it hard on a reader to do so in a book!

    Morgan Mandel


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