Friday, September 24, 2010

A Problem of Characters versus Reality

Yesterday Nathan Bransford did a post about absent parents in YA fiction. The consensus opinion, with which I agree, is that the presence of parents interferes with the ability of the child protagonists to go out adventuring (not to mention that you get a built in amount of sympathy due to whatever has removed the parents).

I had a slightly different issue in my novel. All of us who have been studying writing have read numerous times that we must cut down the number of characters to just those that are truly needed for the story. It isn't good to introduce and let readers get to know a dozen characters and even more sub-characters if some of them play little role in the plot or their role could be just as easily done by an already existing character. My problem is that in a standard medieval society, families tend to be very large, often with more than a dozen kids. I do manage to show this in passing by describing some families this way, but when it comes to the families of key characters, I keep their numbers way down. After all, it wouldn't help the readers or the plot any to have to introduce 14 brothers and sisters, even if that is more realistic.

So, I find (for me) unsatisfying but plausible reasons for all of my major families to have only two or three kids. A mother died in childbirth and events have prevented the father from remarrying. A wife who dislikes her husband and avoids her wifely duties as much as possible. Anyhow, I kind of despise doing this, while at the same time I completely understand that having too many family members simply doesn't work for my kind of tale.

Have you had to compromise absolute realism in order to make your story more readable?


  1. Of course. Dialog is a good example. We don't write the way people really speak with all the 'ums' and 'uhs'. We write what 'sounds' natural to the ear.

    Sometimes people get caught up in the minutia thinking that'll add realism when in fact it becomes dull and obtrusive.

    The best advice ever: Write only what the reader needs to know at that moment.

  2. Lots of times. It is a part of a writer's job description to make unrealistic things seem realistic.

  3. The place where this comes up for me is things like classrooms. My first book includes two students (one in high school, one in kindergarten)--a child can't go to school in a vacuums with no other students, but how much do you TELL. I do some 'lumping' (the jocks who were talking to...) which works fine because my MC is NEW and so there is no real reason for her to distinguish between them. I have a YA series planned though, that I really need to work all this out.

    I think you handled it well in your book, if it's any consolation--I didn't ever actively NOTICE you 'contriving to limit' though now that you mention it, I know what you're talking about.

  4. I didn't compromise realism, but my main two characters possess little or no family, mostly because it is this fact that drives the story rather than not enough time to describe all of them.

  5. Try having a character who's the middle child of 168! Okay, he's a rabbit, but...

    I'm sure there are lots of probable reasons why people in the Middle Ages would only have a few siblings, high infant mortality rate being a key one. (same goes for rabbits even in modern times by the way.)

    But I also read a lot of books where multiple siblings are acknowledged, but only a few are named or become part of the story. (Hardly any of Milo's siblings are named, and none of them actively become part of the story.)

    I do think attention to those kind of details adds credibility to a story, as long as it doesn't slow down the plot, or draw focus to itself.

  6. If you're writing a fantasy and taking a medieval/renaissance approach to things in terms of social makeup, then it doesn't really matter how big the family is, since any story would really only tell the exploits of the eldest male child, and the story would omit and change details to accommodate this. As a storyteller, it's part of the job description to make reality interesting. If this means cutting out family members, so be it.

  7. Jamie, the problem in my story is that the father is the major character, but his sons all play real parts, too. And since the whole family gets some real page time, I can't realistically toss some of them to the background.

  8. I had the same problem with families. I decided the character's mother had had a lot of miscarriages for reasons relating to a magical curse. But after all that trouble to make the protagonist an only child, I ended up giving her two cousins anyway, who might as well have been a sister and brother.

    But I think giving a character real family -- as in your case, where both father and sons play roles -- can make the character deeper and more interesting.

  9. A good compromise for families with full litters of kids is to introduce and focus on your key characters, but have the other characters mentioned in passing but without a direct focus.

    For instance, a brief mention that you are focusing on the oldest of twelve, or the middle three of eleven, with some passing comment that his cousins and brothers/sisters to the north are ... (insert blah here).

    So they can still have a large family, but in absentia. The reader senses the large family, without being introduced to every character. This is how it happens in real life, by the way. You never meet all twelve kids, because they're so scattered by age and geography and death.

    Good point, though, because too many characters is TOO MANY! It's said somewhere that we can only relate to five or six people at a time.

    - Eric

  10. Interesting! I never thought of the impact of large families on historical fiction, but you're right. That could pose some difficulties. I like the way you've approached it, as opposed to say childhood mortality rates. Ack!

  11. Eric, I agree with you, but when one deals as much with the family as I do it would be odd to not even give names to the children, and just those many names alone can be enough to get critters to say 'confusing!'.

  12. An interesting dilemma. Ideally, I agree with the concept that writers should introduce as few characters as possible. Yet I have read several sf/fantasy books with more than a dozen important characters and had no trouble keeping them straight (Donaldson's Mirror of Her Dreams/A Man Rides Through comes to mind). So yes, I agree with the canonical wisdom, but at the same time, some rules can be broken depending on how. No doubt it is much trickier in YA, though.

    I'll also admit I tend to like YA fiction that paints at least some parents in a more realistic and supportive light. The usual Disney-esque 'missing mother/nasty stepmother/clueless father' theme does get a little old.

  13. For my first story, my MC was an only child. (YA fantasy) I had to do this so that she would be the one who would one day rule the country. Second book in that series (about the daughter) finds there are five siblings but three of them are away visiting other family members at the time. I had to name them (but that is SO much fun for me to do!) but then had to get rid of them for most of the book because I didn't want them messing up my storyline. Third book (about a cousin) has four children but two stay behind while the other two go on an adventure.

    I have to pick which characters I'm going to highlight and really be able to show my MC and the struggles she/he is going through. I can't do that with a multitude of other characters (siblings or otherwise) crowding the page. ;)

  14. You are right, Melissa. I just have to look at photos of my grandfather's family, with fourteen kids, or my grandmother's with sixteen, to see how unrealistic we are in our stories, but we really have little choice in today's writing atmosphere where every character is supposed to be key to the plot.