How Many Characters is Too Many?

How many point-of-view characters is too many for your story? I was watching the Indiana Jones movies and it got me thinking… and helped me with the next draft of my novel.

TRANSCRIPT

Hello, folks. I’ve been rewatching these beauties. Three brilliant films and a fourth one… Actually, to be fair, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn’t as bad as you might remember. Certainly when I was rewatching it today, I really enjoyed the first half and began to wonder if I’d been too harsh on it when it came out. Then in the second half it all started to unravel and the ending really was just not satisfying. And of course, with my writer hat on — not a Fedora — I started to wonder why. Now, first of all, let me make it clear: this is not going to be a hatchet job on screenwriter David Koepp. A man I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing for the Bestseller Experiment Podcast. I’ll put a link to that episode in the description below (here’s the link). He is a genuinely delightful chap whose skill as a storyteller is beyond dispute.

Also, film production can be a crazy time, especially with a big franchise movie with colossal expectations. I don’t envy anyone having to work under those kind of time constraints and those levels of expectations and scrutiny. And we simply cannot know what was asked of a writer while in production. Screenwriters are not the authors of a the movie. There are only one voice among many trying to tell a story, and with so many cooks it’s no wonder that sometimes the soup ends up with the sheep’s eyeballs in it. Also, also… I’m rereading the first draft of my next novel and guess what? I’m making exactly the same mistake. Only I have the luxury of time to recognise it and fix it. So what’s the problem with this and many other stories? Before we go on: just a warning that there will be spoilers not only for Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but all the Indiana Jones movies so far. And if you’re watching this in the future and wondering why I’m not talking about the fifth movie, that’s because it’s still in production.

So what exactly is the problem of Crystal Skull? People have pointed the finger at the Nuking the Fridge sequence, the monkeys in the Amazon, indeed that whole chase sequence has a CG gloss to it that when contrasted with truck chase in the first film lacks any sense of verisimilitude or stakes. But the Indy sequels have always had visual effects and SFX that look iffy. I mean, think of the airship/biplane sequence in The Last Crusade, or the action sequences that are a bit silly like the flying inflatable life raft in Temple of Doom. And I don’t have a problem with inter-dimensional aliens.

They’re no more outlandish than the other maguffins in the series, so I don’t think it’s anything to do with those things.

There came a moment at the end of the film when there’s all sort of stuff whizzing around and things are collapsing and John Williams is bringing everything to a resounding crescendo.

And I know I should be thrilled. But… I’m bored. And our heroes are standing there watching things whizz around them and not really doing very much. And then they run. We have a succession of resolution story beats that are meant to have some kind of emotional resonance. So Oxley coming to his sense, Mutt accepting Indy as his father, Mac’s death, Spalko getting the knowledge she craves and paying the price for it.

And Marion and Indy tying the knot. So, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 threads there. That’s a lot even for a two hour movie. The previous three films all had fairly simple story arcs. In Raiders, Indy had to learn to understand the power of the Ark. At the beginning, he’s dismissing it as superstitious nonsense. By the end he’s screaming at Marion to keep her eyes shut, and that saves both their lives. By the way, ignore all that Big Bang Theory nonsense about Indy not having any influence on the outcome of the story.

It completely misses the point. The film isn’t about finding the Ark, it’s about a grave robber rediscovering his faith.

So, in Temple of Doom, Indy has to learn that the artefacts he obtains have a greater value than being stuck in a Museum. “Fortune and glory kid.” And in the Last Crusade, it’s a story of father/son reconciliation. Simple. In Crystal Skull… You get the father/son thing again. Indy and Marion again. Oxley, the old mentor. Mac, the friend who turns traitor, something about cherishing knowledge at the end…

There’s so much being thrown at the viewer, that they don’t know what to latch on to and so disengaged with the story. There are so many threads to wrap up, but none of them are done satisfactorily. So the problem with Crystal Skull is too many characters… Okay, that’s reductive. They’re have been many stories that have oodles of characters and do just fine. Look at the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but that’s why it needed a 15 endings to wrap everything up as satisfactory– satifact– satisfactorally… I can’t even say it! People make jokes about it, but if any of those endings had been missing, the very same armchair critics would be complaining about that. Also, that epic trilogy had plenty of room for those characters to develop. Imagine cramming all of that into 2 hours. As an aside, I’ve been reading Joe Abercormbie’s new trilogy. And I’m halfway through and this series has about six point of view characters, but already I can tell that Joe is giving himself, and them, the room he needs to tell their stories properly. The more point of view characters you have, the bigger your story is going to be.

But you know, with some stories you just need to take one character on a journey of change. There’s no shame in keeping it simple. Done well, it can be the best thing ever. And as I said, I’ve made the same mistake on the first draft of my next Woodville book. I’ve been so seduced by the excitement of bringing in new characters that I’ve been ignoring my regulars.

It’s a really easy trap to fall into. A new character brings energy to a story. It’s great story fuel, and you can keep the reader and viewer engaged. But if that character isn’t given the room to grow in the story, then it becomes noise and fury amounting to not very much, actually. So, one of my next jobs on the next draft is to focus in on the most compelling threads. Two or three at most and make sure they have the most satisfying arcs and resolutions. A doddle. What could possibly go wrong? Stay tuned for more updates as I plunge into this edit. During the meanwhilst, happy writing!

Published by

MarkStayWrites

Author, screenwriter, and co-founder of the Bestseller Experiment podcast.

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