Allow me to date myself. Remember that scene in Wayne's World 2 when Wayne needs directions and asks for a better actor to deliver them? No? Here's a refresher:
Not every character in a book needs to be Charleton Heston, but if a character is important enough to have lines, I kinda want to know they existed before those lines were delivered. I'd also like to know they'll go on existing after they exit stage left.
I recently saw a high school performance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a Shakespearean wannabe about two minor characters in Hamlet and their existential wrestling while off-stage waiting to deliver lines. It's billed as a comedy, but, you'll forgive me, no play where the main characters dies is a comedy. At best, it's a dark comedy, but I digress. The play highlights that these two characters exist only to serve Hamlet. They have no other purpose or life outside of that reality.
One of the things I love about Anne McCaffrey's stories is the interconnectedness. Minor characters in one book become main characters in another, and have cameos or off-hand mentions in yet other books. People know each other. She wrote fanfic for her own worlds. Everybody could be somebody in an Anne McCaffrey universe, and you never knew who would get the spotlight next.
When I read a fantasy novel, I expect every character to have a story and a reason for existing other than just moving the plot forward. I don't expect to read everybody's story in the same book. Most times that back story can't be part of the main plot. But...I'm OK with glimpses. A mention of a former relationship. A token with obvious emotional value. A scar indicating an interesting tale if only you had a chance to stop and hear it.
A fantasy novel walks a fine line. The author must not only make you care about the main characters, but must introduce you to a brand new world without confusing or overloading the reader with history, description or back story. It can be done. McCaffrey did it. Robert Jordan did it. George MacDonald did it in short stories, for goodness' sake.
Advice for today's author seems to include streamlining. Paring down your wordcount. Writing to a shorter attention span. Not bad advice, but I fear we go too far in paring out any word that doesn't "advance" the plot. Some words advance the reality of the world in which the plot happens. I find those words valuable.
Happy Thursday, dear readers. "If you gotta spew, spew into this."
Oops. Wrong movie.
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