Thursday, September 17, 2009

How big is your world?

I think the world is shrinking. All our communications, social networks, professional and personal networks keep bumping into each other. Especially in our relatively small community, and when you factor in the children's literature folks. Twice in the past two days I've had a "small world" connection between people I know from the library and people I know from the kidlit world.

I can't be specific about either one, because they're both events-in-the-planning-stages that have very little to do with me. In both cases, someone from the library needed an author for a program and asked me about it. The first one had an author in mind whom I already know. The second asked me to suggest someone, and when I did, it was a person he knew but hadn't thought of.

I find this heartening. First, because it means that the authors and the library are connecting with each other, which is important. Second, because I am fascinated by the connections between people, and the whole six degrees of separation thing. I still love it that Alison and I discovered we had a mutual friend when I received e-vites to Alison's New Year's Eve party and our friend's New Year's Day open house, and I saw each of their names on the other invitation. Until then I had no idea they knew each other.

At what point in human history did people became more strangers than not? I mean, it wasn't long ago that most people knew everyone in their community, either by sight or by name or family. If a stranger came to town, people knew it. As time went on, there were more and more strangers. It's gotten to a point where, when you walk down the street or into a store, you're more likely to not know most of the people, if anyone, you see. Thousands of strangers come and go, and no one even notices. When did that happen?

So here's where I get to the writing portion of this musing: I've read great stories where characters who appear to have nothing to do with one another at the beginning actually have a history together. I've read stories that focus tightly on a small group of people who all clearly know one another. Then, occasionally, I read stories that seem to have a cast of thousands, and I wonder how the author made this clear without boring the heck out of us.

How do you deal with all the strangers in your stories? Do you bother to write in extras whose only job is to make your world feel populated? Or do you stick to the characters who have speaking roles?


Sarah said...

The first time I write something, I'm concentrating on the main characters. But during the following revisions, I've added folks.

Amy Tate said...

I'm a big Toilken fan and I think it's partly due to the fact that he creates such strong characters. Each one of them is significant whether they're supporting a main character or play an important role themselves. During the revising of my middle grade novel, I went over each character and asked myself what type of role they play in my story. I found that it was a good way to make weak characters stronger and a way to eliminate unnecessary ones too.

Michelle said...

It's interesting that in revising Sarah is adding characters and Amy is removing them.

Lisa said...

I'm in the revision process of my MG novel, and I'm finding that some of the lesser characters are just placeholders. So, I'm fleshing them out a bit. Not by adding a lot, but by using concise details that make them real. Often with minor characters, little physical traits and habits really help to pop them off the page and help readers remember who they are.

It's the background people I have trouble with, the ones who are there to make the town feel real and full and alive. How to draw them, as a group? They're parts of the scenery, but they're moving, living, breathing parts of the scenery. For some reason, they're much more problematic than trees.