For the sake of clarity and unencumbered pacing, it's best to keep the number of characters to a minimum. By "character," I mean an individual with a distinct name, description, and story role. For example, we may take our readers to a garden party with a hundred or so guests whose raucous laughter and gay apparel contribute to the mood of the evening, yet get acquainted only with our urbane hostess and her scowling maid. We've given readers two new characters and a roomful of party noise. (Trying to keep track of the rest would distract readers, even if we gave everyone name tags!)
So before you introduce a new character into your narrative, ask yourself a few tactical questions such as these:
- Will this person's identity, ideas, or actions move my hero closer to his/her goal?
- Will this person thwart my hero's quest?
- Will this person's experience give my hero a crucial insight into what he/she must do?
- Will this person "take a bullet" for my hero--pull away someone who otherwise would encumber my hero, or fall victim to a hazard that otherwise might claim my hero?
"Have I any messages?" Hester asked, stripping her gray flannel gloves.
The clerk turned to a rank of mailboxes and retrieved a folded half-sheet of stationery with her name hand-lettered on the outside.
A chill ran down Hester's spine as she scanned its contents. How had Gretchen found her here?
The clerk performs an important function in this scene, but not so important that we need to be introduced. We don't know whether the clerk is male or female, young or old, natty or slovenly...because it doesn't matter. The note's the thing.
I once worked as an "extra" in a crowd scene for a college drama production. The director told us to mill about the stage doing things that a crowd normally would do in the city square, while muttering to one another, "Peas and carrots...Peas and carrots...Peas and carrots..." That way, the audience saw and heard us in the background, but their attention remained fixed on the main characters.
If an individual doesn't really advance your story, don't make that person a character. Let him be a nondescript "extra": No name, no physical characteristics, no inane dialogue--just peas and carrots.
Swords and Whetstones: A Guide to Christian Bible Study Resources. He's currently writing a trilogy of Christian historical novels set in the Great Depression.
Visit Joe's blog at http://hoosierwriter.wordpress.com