While all your fictional or memoir characters may seem perfectly clear to you, readers may struggle and get confused if asked to remember too many characters too fast. One solution is to create composite characters.
Writing Tip for Today: Let’s discuss composite characters for fiction and memoir.
Write Representatives, not Crowds
Composite Characters are exactly what they seem—two or more characters (either from real life or from a writer’s mind) who are combined into one person in the story. Why do this? Readers are always searching for meaning and looking for patterns as they read, whether they realize it or not. By combining characters with basically the same purpose in the story, you strengthen the role each character represents to the POV character. If you’ve studied Joseph Campbell’s archetypes, you know that your characters all have roles to play—from Heroes to Heralds to Threshold Guardians. To see if composite characters might improve your work, test your story by assigning the various archetypes to them. If more than one character represents a certain aspect or archetype, a composite may be your best option.
Find Your Blue Duck
At first glance, it might seem that composites would make your story less authentic, but the opposite can be true. I tell students about a writer who wrote of her preschool-aged son melting a blue plastic duck in the oven (Oh, goo!). Her older child pointed out that the melted object was not a duck, but in fact one of those magnetic alphabet letters people keep on their refrigerators. The author explained that describing the melting alphabet letter would require the reader to know exactly which letter it was, and since the letters come in a rainbow of colors, it would take more words to explain which color letter got baked. A blue plastic duck, by contrast, provided an immediate mental picture. Everyone knows the shape of a duck, and blue is also self-explanatory. Applying the concept to characters, let’s say your character has two grandmothers—most of us do. Yet if these grandmas both have the same role in the story, readers might forget which gram has lavender hair and which has blue hair. Rolling them into one stronger character cements her in readers’ minds and unclutters the story so readers can focus on the Main Character’s forward movement.
Characters Ripe for Composite
You may have heard the advice that if minor characters don’t have speaking parts, or dialogue, they don’t get names. It feels unnecessary to readers to remember names of those who are really just “extras” in your movie, and only adds to all the stuff readers must remember as they go through the story. If your story features a group of people, say, the 20 students of a teacher’s classroom, you can take this idea a step further. By combining these pupils into only two or three representatives, readers get the illusion of a class full of kids without having to remember their names or even their faces. Only the students who have direct interaction (i.e., dialogue) with the teacher will receive names and they will be combined to create representatives—for example, the teacher’s pet, the bully, the class clown. Even if the story is about helping a class of disadvantaged kids, creating these representatives helps readers understand their roles in the story. The fewer characters the reader must focus on and remember, the stronger each remaining (composite) character will be.