When we write, we strive to create real people. Not story characters, but people that live and breathe, cry and laugh, hate and love. They have lives that feel real to the reader. And yet…they don’t live and breathe and as authors we have to limit what they do.
Oh, they can kill people. They can have sex. They can go to faraway lands. But they have some limits.
Try writing a scene where twenty characters carry on a conversation, yelling over each other, interrupting each other, leaving, coming back, switching subjects mid-sentence. That happens in real life, but it’s awfully difficult to write it and not lose the reader.
Even fewer people, say eight sitting around a dinner table laughing and trading stories, is difficult to maintain. With that many people talking in real life, you end up sometimes listening to one person, sometimes breaking up into two or three simultaneous conversations, and sometimes trying to keep up with two stories at once.
That makes for lively dinner talk. I’ve found, though, that it doesn’t work so well in a book. When you’re writing a scene with multiple characters, having that many people interacting is too confusing. More than about three people talking together is too many. If it’s a play, a movie or a TV show, you can do more characters – the audience can see and identify easily who’s talking. In a book, it’s either confusing or boring with constant tags to identify the speakers.
I might call this a general rule, but like all rules, there are exceptions. There are ways around a limited pool of three speakers. You could have three talking at a table or football game, long enough to establish who they are in the readers’ minds, then have one or two more come into the conversation, then exit. You could have six or eight at a dinner table, but have them broken up into three or four conversations, each going on separately with the main character focusing in on one interaction.
Fiction may imitate or mimic real life, but it’s not an exact copy. What’s you “limit” on the number of characters in one conversation? How do you handle more than three speakers at one time?
1 week ago