Have you ever noticed that an unnatural number of characters seem to be loners? Or close to it? It’s the standard formula–you give your main character one friend so that they won’t be totally antisocial and will have someone to bounce conversation off of, and then you ignore the rest of their social life while you pursue the plot.
But lately that second part has been bothering me. I recently read Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, and his main character, Richard, though a basically nice guy with a good job in a populous city, seems to have absolutely no one in his life except a coworker he’s friendly with, and a really terrifying girlfriend. In some ways the trajectory of the book explains why Gaiman wouldn’t want to tie Richard down (I’ll leave it vague to avoid spoilers), but it put me on the thought track, and I don’t think Richard is the only character in this social situation.
Why don’t these characters have more friends? Why don’t they have second cousins and old college acquaintances and coworkers they’re friendly with and members of groups they attend and old friends of the family and neighbors they nod to and that best friend they bounce coversation off of? At least, that’s the way the world works for me and the people I know. So why don’t characters exist at the center of their own web of people?
Probably because it doesn’t make sense to clutter up a story with all those people who aren’t relevant to the plot. But shouldn’t they exist in a subtext sort of way? You never meet Aunt Susie and Cousin Jimmy, but the character has family photos on the wall. We don’t need to know who’s in them, but family photos means family and it would be nice to know they exist somewhere. Yet lately I keep running across books (and even more so in movies) where characters seem to know barely anyone. Some characters, of course, really are loners and that’s part of the point. But a lot just seem to be sort of vaguely unconnected.
It’s made me think about my own writing. How many people do my characters know? Take Jack, my goatherd. He’s new to the area, having moved from the next country over, but he’s friendly with the servants at the castle, and he ought to know a few other shepherds and goatherds in the area–but I must admit I’m not sure I’ve made that second part clear. He also has relatives back in his hometown, an uncle and a cousin. His cousin, Catherine, becomes the heroine of the second part of the book. She runs an inn and I’m pretty sure she knows most people in town. She has a whole network of people running the inn with her, she goes to the prince’s ball with a group of friends, and when Cinderella is eventually found, Catherine knows her slightly and has heard gossip about her (unpleasant family situation).
I’m not claiming I have it down perfectly with all my characters either–far from it, I’m sure! But it’s something I want to think about more consciously when I write characters. Do they know a lot of people, and what kind of people? And if they don’t–because I think the main characters of the story I’m writing now wouldn’t–why not? And how does that change the character?
My pirate captain, Red Ballantyne, knows everyone. Every bartender, every tavern girl, every pirate, every person he trades goods with illegally, he knows by name. He’s also not very close to any of them.
The main character of my current in-progress novel, another fantasy loosely drawing on fairy tales, is a wandering adventurer named Jasper. He meets new people constantly, by doing things like rescuing them from ogres. But I think if he bumped into them six months later, he wouldn’t remember them very well. And I don’t think he keeps in touch with hardly anyone. But that’s who Jasper is as a character, and I eventually get into a backstory about why he doesn’t form lasting friendships with the people he meets.
Any case, it seems to me that who your characters know is a pretty good way to convey information about them. Has anyone else seen authors who do this really well? Or, like me, do you find that it seems to be an under-utilized tool?