Lost In “The Crowd?”

This post is perhaps mostly for you other author “nerds” out there, I guess. I am sure you have your opinion on this too. I hope, though, others of you might find it interesting, of course.

I was writing yesterday, paused for a break, and had a scroll of Twitter – always dangerous doing that, I know – and I saw this tweet:

[From Twitter.]

Reading it, I realized it never occurred to me that there are “sets” of characters. Indeed I have never seen that question ever posed that way before. Thinking on it, asking that in that way seems to me to jump into the entire issue mid-flow.

Meaning we need to back up first. I have been asked from time to time over the years how I get from here…

[Photo by me, October 2020.]

…to here:

[Trilogy: Passports, Frontiers, Distances: Atlantic Lives, 1994-1997. Photo by me, 2019.]

Best answer: by writing and writing and writing for years. Characters are those needed and wanted by me best (I feel) to tell my tale(s) and make my point(s). Those there are are there for my writing reasons.

Asking readers what they consider the “right number” of characters is (to me) to ask the wrong question. Not that they even should be asked on Twitter, but assuming for the sake of argument here that they are, they cannot reasonably offer a view on that question – as a reader, I could not – without knowing what the story is going to be about, how large it will be, and how it will be presented. For even if it will be “300 pages,” stories are NOT all the same size within those pages and such difference has to be borne in mind. (We could also think of that this way. We can watch “30 minutes” of Keeping Up with the Kardashians or “30 minutes” on the struggle for free and fair elections in, say, the 10 million population Belarus. Yet both get the same “30 minutes” of screentime.)

So there is the initial question of the story’s scope and perspective. The scope will influence the perspective(s). Which takes us to that perpetual Twitter #writingcommunity over and over and over asked question: the “first” or “third” person?

The “first person” (I feel) works best for an entire book when the story is built around a smallish group and the “I” “I” “I” person is at the center of the action. An example is Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. It revolves around “Jake Barnes,” others “he” knows, and weeks of “their” lives based mostly on what “he” sees:

[From The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway, 1926.]

In comparison, Leo Tolstoy’s famous War and Peace could NOT honestly have been written only from a “first person” viewpoint. It opens in 1805 and does not truly conclude until 1820. He chose to write about a myriad of locations that most characters never see, many happenings which most characters never experience, and so many characters overall to have been unable to present it from just “one” perspective or even two or three – so we get LOTS of perspectives:

[The first page of War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy, 1869. This English translation approved by Tolstoy.]

Yes, it would be possible to write of Russian aristocracy and the 1812 Napoleonic invasion of Russia from only one character’s viewpoint. However, that would be a different novel. It would not be War and Peace.

If Tolstoy had become so hung up about having more than “two sets” of characters, the novel never would have been written. Given the scope of the tale, the characters had to be many; but as you read the novel the major ones become well-defined in your mind’s eye. The only way you might find yourself “confused” by them, to be honest, is if you are not reading it very closely.

Okay, so where does that leave us ordinary writing mortals?

I have written a “first person” short story:

[Excerpt from “And Out Comes Her Phone.” Copyright 2020. FREE read. Click to expand.]

…which focuses on one man’s perspective in crossing paths with a woman in an airport lounge, the few hours’ action is almost exclusively between them, and others we see are basically background.

But mostly I write “third person”

[A 1792 France excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. Paperback. Photo by me, 2020.]

…because although they have a main character and others who are nearly as “main,” all of my books thus far have been years-long, multi-country, multi-character, and multi-happenings that do not always involve everyone.

Before I – to use, uh, “first person” here – write a single word, I decide what sort of story I wish to write. Then I decide on its scope and perspective, and write within those boundaries. Always I bear in mind that much as a reader should never be in doubt who is thinking or talking on a page, if a reader is “confused” between “Person A” and “Person B”, etc., that is entirely my fault as the writer. (As I have written previously, “misunderstanding” is NEVER a reader’s fault.)

Upon publication, readers then decide if it is any good. I know I will never critically please all of them. Opinions are useful to an extent, but this asking readers on Twitter what they want… given the variety of answers I am likely to receive I don’t see how that really helps me as a writer.

On that note, have a good day wherever you are. 🙂

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