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Note: I am not sure of which site this question belongs to: Writing SE or Literature SE. If this question is unfit for this site, I will happily migrate it there.

So I am writing about the protagonist's school life adventures. Naturally there are lot of characters - classmates, school teachers, friends, etc. and by and large more than 50 characters has some or other appearance in the story. By appearance, I don't mean about their existence for one or two line. Each one has some reasonable amount of role to play across protagonist; sometimes together and sometimes individually.

I am confused here of whether I should describe each and every character with detail for readers to understand that character's norms, habits, beliefs and nature? If not, then won't it be abruptness and vague when that character will pop out of no-where without much description?

Can anyone justify if possible with the citation of already written literature their stand of what should I go with -> describing the characters in detail or just pop them up whenever required with as little detail as possible.

Edit: My draft is a short novella. I want to keep the length of my draft smaller and stick to story but I feel that description of each character alone will increase the size of my draft. My genre of writing is fiction (inspired from reality though) and the protagonist and stage is setup in India. The story is a fictional story about the protagonist's life in school and some great adventures he gets into during his school life.

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I am confused here of whether I should describe each and every character with detail for readers to understand that character's norms, habits, beliefs and nature?

Do not do that.

All that matters is the feelings and reactions of your protagonist in the moment. Treat your reader like a ghost friend of your protagonist. If she recognizes fifty people in the hallway, she is not mentally or verbally going to go through a laundry list of characteristics and histories of everybody. You have two seconds for her to have a thought; that is all the reader gets too.

Talking about these norms, habits, beliefs and nature, or physical descriptions, are all a boring shortcut beginning authors try to take, and it doesn't work very well. You are basically asking the reader to memorize a list of features for a character and remember them for later, so you don't have to explain that X says "cool" every other word.

Instead, adopt the idea of immersion. Your protagonist is taking a certain path through the story, having encounters with people (perhaps with animals like pets) and with the setting. Show us his thoughts and emotions as they happen, including if he likes or dislikes somebody, fears somebody, is deferential to authority figures or not, etc. If people have quirks, he reacts to them as he does. Do not give the reader any "extra" knowledge besides that, it should not ever be necessary.

By analogy, think of a movie, opening on the crowded hallway of a school before classes start. We (the audience) are immersed. We get no special tags or asides or anything else; we see kids in action and hear dialogue, we see facial expressions, laughter, anger and we figure it out. The camera focuses on certain kids.

Joe just tripped Kyle and made him drop his books, Kyle only shakes his head in resignation and kneels to pick them up. Joe walks away as if nothing happened, except for his stupid smirk.

Pria is, as always, looking in her mirror. Who can blame her, who wouldn't fall in love with that face?

Do I have to describe these three characters any further? As an author, your ability to show thoughts and feelings of your protagonist is what is important; the reader identifies with the protagonist and sees the world through his eyes and thoughts. Exactly what Pria looks like should not be told, because different readers have different standards of beauty and a specific description can actually alienate them. What matters is how the protagonist feels about her, and those are feelings the reader is willing to share; let them come up with their own mental image of a Pria they can understand feeling about in the same way.

I only describe character elements that will have some direct impact on the story, sooner or later. The later the better, except in the case of highly unusual or improbable characteristics (special talent or physical attributes) which should be described as early as possible, so they will be taken as "givens" instead of deus ex machinas.

For example, if your protagonist's best friend is the tallest person in the school, presumably that unusual characteristic plays into the plot somehow: They can reach what others cannot, they are on the basketball team and that matters, etc. Or suppose the friend is a chemistry wizard, or chess champion, or judo black belt, because that will matter.

Bring up unusual or outlier characteristics as early as possible, again without telling but showing. "Showing" does not have to mean a scene of chess or judo; it can be as little as an excuse in dialogue: "Not tonight, it's chess club! The district tournament is just a month away." A line like that could set up the protagonist, in a month, to accompany his friend to the tournament in some other town, as part of the plot, without seeming contrived (as it would if this chess tournament suddenly appeared three pages before the trip and too-conveniently solved the protagonist's problem of getting to this other town).

  • Thanks a lot. This answer specifically showed me the roadmap of how to proceed with the writing instead of dropping the idea at all. I shall proceed with preparing draft keeping this answer in mind. Thanks for the examples, they were really helpful. – Karan Desai Jul 5 '18 at 2:49
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You've written yourself into a corner.

  1. Yes, you should describe every character, to a degree of detail proportional to importance of their role in the story.

  2. There's no way the reader will remember 50 distinct characters and not confuse the heck out of them if any return or become more important later.

Simply put, that doesn't work. It's a mess which makes writing stories with a premise similar to yours very difficult, and rarely good.

...especially if you're writing a short novella.

This can be made to work through straightforward, hard sequencing. Have many chapters. Have a small, memorable 'main cast' which occurs in most of the chapters. And have the background crowd, where each face appears and is detailed for span of one chapter, then harmlessly forgotten come next chapter. Maybe rarely return some of them, reintroducing them. Make them memorable and iconic if they are to recur.

(that doesn't imply 1 chapter per character. You can get groups of 3-4 'extras' besides the main cast in a chapter. More, and it gets confusing.)

As an example of a story with excessive size cast, I can give you Silver Glow's Journal. It has nearly 130 characters. And it's about a million words long. (KJV Bible is 783,000 words.) And it's still terribly confusing whenever secondary cast characters return. Especially when they advance to main cast after a couple chapters. It kinda works, it's still a lovely story, but everyone will admit the excessively sized cast is confusing and its weakest point. And it kinda-sorta works only because it's so damn long, giving enough time to flesh out anyone semi-important.

My advice: Discard this idea. If you don't have the experience to make it work (and the fact you're asking this question means you don't), you won't make it work.

  • Thank you for the clear explanation. So either I should increase the size of my draft (novel or series may be?) including the proportionate description of the characters wherever required or drop the idea completely. – Karan Desai Jul 4 '18 at 9:56
  • @KaranDesai: Even if you increase the size, without clear sequencing and properly distributing emphasis (memorability) of characters you will fail. Size is just one of several preconditions required to make it work. – SF. Jul 4 '18 at 10:04
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    The Chinese classics all seem to have a ton of characters. However, like you said for that other book, the novels themselves are also very long and detailed. – Double U Jul 4 '18 at 11:56
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Remember your own days at school? Some people you knew well - they were your friends. Some you didn't know so well - classmates you weren't close with. Perhaps there were the people you didn't get along with: you probably didn't know why they were like that, you just knew their unpleasant trait, and to keep your distance. Then, there were the teachers; how much did you know about them, save whether they were strict, and whether their exams were hard?

It should be the same in your story: some characters you show in detail. Others - a little bit. Yet others - the reader doesn't need to know much about them at all. It's realistic to a school experience.

Look as an example at Harry Potter and the Philosopher's stone. (Harry Potter being a series, we get to know some characters later in the following books, but that's not relevant to what you're looking for.) The main trio are characters you know well. Other students: there's Neville who loses and forgets stuff and gets bullied, there's Malfoy the Bully, and that's it. Crabbe and Goyle aren't really characters - they are Malfoy's satellites. The teachers - we get Snape and Quirrel, enough of McGonagall to know she's strict but kind and can be trusted, nothing of what goes on in Enigmatic-but-Good Dumbledore's brain, and the names of some others.

You see? We don't need a lot of details about every single character. We need as much detail as is relevant, as much detail as the MC(s) would have. Let me stress this again - not "as little as possible", not "each and every character with detail", but the relevant detail, as much of it as is needed and makes sense.

Another smart thing J.K. Rowling does is she introduces characters early on, in a brief line or a brief scene, and then "puts them on the shelf" to be used later. So when a character is needed, they don't "pop out of nowhere". Parvati Patil, for instance, is mentioned in the first book (during the sorting hat scene), reappears in the third book, and so on. It creates the sense that she's always there, the MCs just don't really interact with her. You can use the same tool in your novella: mention a character in one line early on, then later on, when they become important, it makes sense that they've been there all along.

  • Exactly! I can certainly get inspired from Harry Potter. Thanks for putting perspective of putting my own feet in Protagonist's shoe. – Karan Desai Jul 5 '18 at 2:53
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It depends. Are you in an omniscient perspective? Are you in a limited perspective?

If limited, you'd only describe those attributes that the point-of-view character notices. So, if the point of view character was color-blind there'd be no color described. If the point-of-view character was a thief, the features described would relate to (for example) wealth. And ... If the point-of-view character is arrogant or narcissistic, other characters wouldn't be noticed - or described - at all, by her/him.

  • Yes, even if I describe the relevant attributes that point-of-view character notices, for 50+ characters - it can be, as other answer(s) mention, overwhelming for readers to memorize each - so I think I won't describe all - I shall however keep this perspective in checklist while writing. Thanks. – Karan Desai Jul 5 '18 at 2:56
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If you have many minor characters, at first I would recommand to pick only one trait to discribe them. Think about what trait could summarize that character and be used as a nickname by classmates. For example : the big guy, the redhead, the orphan, the teacher's pet, the weirdo, etc.

If you give too many details, your readers will get lost and won't know who is who.

Once you've finished your first draft, you can check the minor characters that appear more often than others, and eventually give a few more details about them. But the amount of details should be proportional to the importance of that character in the story.

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If I understand, the issue is that your POV character has a large number of pre-existing friends and acquaintances at the time the story starts. Their descriptions are familiar to the character, so he wouldn't normally remark on them, but they are unknown to the audience.

I have never seen a book where a large cast of characters is described, prior to their introduction. This would be tedious and hard to remember for the reader. The standard practice is to describe characters the first time they enter the narrative, when the reader has a reason to care. You also won't want to introduce too many characters at once, nor focus much on unimportant characters. And, even if this is based on autobiography, you'll want to reduce the number of main characters by combining several real life people into one composite character (for the convenience of the reader). Fifty is far too many.

If you have a third person narrator, you can just include a brief description as needed: "At the door was Karan's best friend, a short, nervous boy with untidy hair." If your narrator is first-person, you'll have to go with the convention that he is talking to an audience who doesn't know his friends. "It was my best friend at the door. Most people just saw him as a short, nervous boy with untidy hair, but I knew he had the heart of a lion."

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No, don't describe any of your characters.

I mean it. Focus on what your characters say and do. When you stop the action to describe people and settings, readers like me will skip ahead to the next paragraph to see if the story starts up again there. And, chances are, we will not have missed anything crucial. Look at the stories you read. Do they include character descriptions? Do you read them or skip ahead?

"Norms, habits, beliefs, and nature" are revealed through your characters' actions. This is one instance where "show don't tell" is actually good advice.

So no, don't describe your characters. (Except, of course, where the description is part of the story. Owen's appearance was important to A Prayer for Owen Meany. The description of the blind man revealed the narrator's point of view in Raymond Carver's "Cathedral.")

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