Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Characters, and the relationships between them, are essential to a good story. Sometimes, stories require, or at least tolerate, a large cast. Other times, medium is a better fit – lots of variety and options for location and activity, but more intimate than the A Song of Ice and Fire cast. Then there are the occasional stories that focus primarily or exclusively on just a few people. Such stories are valuable in a number of ways, and today I’d like to talk about making them part of your writing repertoire.
Why write a tiny cast?
Whether you’ve considered it before or not, there are a number of reasons you might want to write a story with only a few characters.
It breeds variety
There’s a reason authors opt for character formulae (in fact, we’ve suggested it) – a formula provides a readymade framework, often one with proven success. The core cast of seven to nine main characters works well for a variety of styles and genres, and will usually include a range of secondary and tertiary characters. Larger casts lend themselves well to fantasy (the A Song of Ice and Fire series), but also have broader stylistic applicability (One Hundred Years of Solitude).
Small casts, particularly one or two characters, are typically useful for survival stories (Robinson Crusoe), but they need not be limited to this motif. While survival stories will always have a place in our hearts, using a tiny cast to depict something unexpected can cast new light on a familiar theme. Consider how a war story might be recast through the eyes of a solitary drone pilot, or what might happen if a babysitter found him or herself stuck with two young children after their parents died in a crash. Flexing your cast size can inject variety into existing concepts and genres.
It promotes depth and development
Characters are a lot of work – even minor ones. It’s important that even secondary characters behave in believable and authentic ways, so they have to have in-depth profiles, well-developed backstories, and consistent personalities. The temptation with a larger cast is to let some of the characters slip into utilitarian roles. They respond in ways that advance the plot, but not in ways that are necessarily congruent with who they are as a person.
Whittling your cast down to the essentials allows you to dive in deep without expending a lot of time on characters that might be superfluous or, worse, including unnecessary characters as placeholders and plot tools.Experimenting with cast size can inject variety into existing concepts and genres.Click To Tweet
Working with a mere handful of characters also facilitates more intimate relationships between characters and readers. At the end of Aron Ralston’s autobiography (Between a Rock and a Hard Place, cast of six), the reader can’t let go of Ralston. He lingers, not just his story, to the point where if they saw him on the street, they might forget that they don’t actually know each other. The same connectivity happens in fiction as, for instance, when at the end of Hatchet or Castaway the reader has as hard a time reassimilating into society as the characters themselves.
It keeps you honest
When you only have a couple people in the story, you can’t cheat. You can’t fake a character, fudge the plot, or shortcut personal growth. If, in real life, you pretend to be charitable in front of a lot of people, you might get away with it. You probably won’t be able to convince your life partner, who sees you every day. This is slightly different than in literature, where the cover-up is more for authorial convenience than personal reputation, but the same principle applies.The focus necessary when writing a tiny cast can produce more rounded characters.Click To Tweet
An author might hastily slap names and character traits onto the members of a dance troupe for the sake of having a troupe, but under the utilitarian surface, the characters aren’t real people. If I spend 80,000 words on a single dancer and his estranged mother, though, they must be real. The result is stronger characters… no matter how many there are. Inter-character relationships are more vivid, too. When I finished Room, Jack and his mother followed me around for days. I still have flashbacks to moments in their relationship. The latter part of the story, with its wider cast, is hazier.
A small cast is cleaner, more manageable. There isn’t as much width, since a few characters can only do so much and cover so much ground, but the simplicity facilitates an easier entrance into the world of the book and, as mentioned above, more depth. In another article, we’ve suggested that a book ought to have as few characters as necessary. Authors are often surprised to find how few that might be.
How to do it
If you’ve decided you’re ready to hazard a small cast, here are some ideas to support you along the way.
See if a small cast fits your story
Science fiction and fantasy in particular tend to need larger casts as part of the world-building process that transports readers from Earth to Mars or Middle Earth. Don’t assume, though, that any genre or story must have a large group of characters to succeed. CS Lewis’s Space Trilogy has a streamlined cast despite its other-worldly setting. Much of the world building is setting-based, and the bulk of the plot is philosophical. Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson takes this philosophical focus to a whole new level, and it works. His story is one of the few that can lay literal claim to the label ‘one-of-a-kind.’
Alternatively, if a concept is already familiar, say a world of wizards and trolls, you may be able to minimize world building and still set a character down in that world in such a way that readers already feel at home.
Rethink traditional models
As mentioned above, a new twist on a war story might include a one- or two-character cast of drone pilots and their post-traumatic stress (yet to be written in fiction form, as far as I know, though the theme is represented in Richard A. Clarke’s Sting of the Drone at least). A murder mystery may not need a half-dozen suspects in order to be suspenseful (I’m thinking of the creative nonfiction Serial podcast, season 1). A coming-of-age story may not need a slew of influential characters (Flowers in the Attic). Take whatever story you’re thinking of writing, look at how many characters you feel it’s ‘supposed’ to have, and see if you can do it with less. How would reframing the story turn readers’ expectations on their heads? What new light can you shed on your theme by looking at it from a radically different lens?
Get to know your characters really, really well
First, chart your characters according to their purpose in the story. Write out the characters you feel you need, what roles they fill, what they’re like, and whether any of them can be merged. Remember that some characteristics might be amalgamated into the protagonist’s personality.
Next, get a list of ‘questions to ask on a first date’ or ‘questions for going deeper’ from the internet (here, for example). Ask them of your remaining characters, and make a new chart. This is a way to get to know your characters as people instead of as instruments in your story. You won’t report all their answers in the narrative, but their answers should inform how the characters act and behave in the story.As the number of characters dwindles, the need for each to be engaging intensifies.Click To Tweet
Finally, decide which of your characters you’d want to get stuck in a highway rest stop for forty hours with. If you have a thirty-item character list and one of your characters rubs a reader the wrong way, they can latch onto another. This might still work in a two-character story if the reader develops sympathy for one character based on the intolerability of the other, but when you only have a couple of characters, the risk that readers will lose interest is higher. If one or two characters are unlikeable, they had better be really darn interesting. Bottom line: your reader has to care about your characters.
You may need to overlay several characteristics that are often separated into type characters (the funny one, the smart one, the spiritual guide). The fewer people there are in the story, the more weight they’ll each need to carry.
This works well with the survival motif because the character suddenly becomes their own companion, replacing lost relationships with self-talk, humor, reasoning out loud, and considering ‘what would so-and-so say?’ How else might characters find themselves playing multiple roles? If they’re trapped, stranded, mentally ill, someone’s sole caretaker, a forest ranger, a lighthouse keeper, an arctic photographer, someone who loses multiple senses or brain functions, two people together on a long road trip, unexpectedly imprisoned (as in Gerald’s Game), or a disenchanted rich man who moves to a cabin in the middle of nowhere to become a total recluse (Against Nature), and so on. It’s also worth noting that having only a handful of characters doesn’t mean that other people don’t exist. Two lovers might be vacationing in Rome – other people are there, but the story doesn’t have to include them. A hospital patient may only ever interact with or mention a single nurse, though it’s a given that there are other people at the hospital.
There are a million ways you could go with this, and it often comes back to what I suggested above: try reframing the obvious cast into something unconventional and see what happens. Don’t shun the traditional – solo survival characters are as different and compelling as Karana and Robert Neville and there’s room for more – but be willing to think creatively and turn traditional upside-down.
Lay out your story arc
If possible, do this in a visual way. Take note cards and write plot points on each one or draw a diagram to show what happens when and how it impacts your character(s). Even if you have only one character, especially if you have only one character, there must be conflict and resolution. Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek still includes the cruelty of nature as a source of conflict. Thoreau’s Walden emphasizes resolution to an implied conflict: discord and unhealthy social constructs. Conflict may be outward, as when the protagonist in Jack London’s To Build a Fire faces the raw and brutal winter of the Yukon, or inward, as in Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. Without conflict, your characters will fall flat. When you only have a couple characters and they’re flat, your story is on pretty shaky ground.
Improving your craft with a tiny cast
The last thing I’d like to say about writing a small cast is this: it will grow you as a writer. Writing a story with one, two, maybe up to five or six characters is difficult. Heather Burch, author of the Hafling series, says that, even as an experienced and successful writer, she was surprised at how challenging it was to write Summer by Summer with just two characters.Experimenting with a tiny cast can vastly improve your craft. Click To Tweet
The task of writing these kinds of stories extends beyond the stories themselves. You learn a lot about character development and complex relationships. You start to discern patterns in your own writing, illuminating how you typically use characters and how you might improve. In challenging yourself, you grow. If you persist, you also end up with a unique story. If the prospect of writing a one-person novel is daunting, start with a short story, maybe even flash fiction. Let me know how it goes if you do!
I’d also enjoy hearing from you on something else: there are a lot of great stories out there with just a few characters, and I didn’t have room to mention them all here. What are some of your favorites? While you think, check out How To Write Compelling Conflict Without A Villain and How Many Characters Should A Novel Have? for more on this topic.