People, and Interaction

In a recent interview excerpted on the great fiction market listings site Duotrope, Sheila Williams, Editor of Asimov’s, repeated a couple great points about short story writing that I’ve heard before and often see handled poorly in the stories I read.

Most stories are underpopulated.

Many writers focus so closely on the main characters that the story ends up having very few other people in it; so few other people that the story feels weirdly vacant.  Focusing on the main characters is good, but any story that doesn’t have the characters alone still needs to feel like there are other people around.

I know of several ways to make a story feel realistically populated but without diluting the focus on the main characters.  One is to describe the ancillary characters or people as a group, rather than detailing them individually.  Like a gaggle of kids or a room packed full of rambling drunks.  Maybe with one exemplar kid or drunk given a bit of specific description.

Another way, that can work better but takes more space, is to give each ancillary character a tiny role or a tiny bit of stage time.  Lately I’ve been rereading George R.R. Martin’s brilliant epic fantasy A Game of Thrones.  In that famous opening scene when the family sons find the direwolf pups, I was struck by how several of the guards, who both were given names but not much more, had very brief roles in the conversation about whether to keep the pups.

They each had one line or maybe two, interspersed between the main characters’ dialog, and they were both arguing the same choice.  The main characters still were the major focus–Bran and Jon and Eddard had longer strings of dialog and were arguing more complicated facets of the choice.  But these two guards who had names and a line or two each made the scene feel realistically populated, as though there really was a large retinue traveling with these Stark nobles.

A lot of the tale can be told through the interaction of characters.

This is a variation on an idea that Nancy Kress said in her lecture at the Odyssey workshop a few years ago:  “Dialog should be the heart of most scenes.”

Her point was that dialog is the medium by which characters interact, and character interaction by definition is drama.  It shows how those characters feel and think.  It shows who they are as people.  And if the writer has set up the scene well to show the conflict, the interaction also shows what those characters want and what they might be willing to do to get it.

And dramatization is the most vivid and engaging way to show these things.  After all, Ms. Kress said, the second-oldest form of written storytelling in human civilization is stage plays.  Which of course are 100% dialog–100% characters interacting.

Obviously this won’t work for all stories or all scenes–sometimes, characters are alone.  But one reason Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” works so well for me is that the protagonist, who has no one else around him, keeps talking to his dog.  So we get to see his personality and goals dramatized even though he’s alone.

People, and interaction.  Two things that make real life interesting and complex, and can do the same for fiction.

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