How Much is Too Much?—Plot

Ever read a book with too many plots (or characters) that you just can’t keep up with everything? Or you can, but the plot or character with the most time (or seemingly most) devoted to it is about half as interesting as the other(s)?

I don’t see that as often in more modern literature. Writers usually confine themselves to a more limited set of characters and plot threads these days. Now, I’ll grant, the trend in YA of focusing on a single character with almost zero subplots is worse than too many characters/plots. However, I’ll have to hit on minimalism another day.

Some books can handle interweaving innumerable characters and plots. Tolkien’s The Two Towers comes to mind, along with Eve Forward’s Villains by Necessity and Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s Obsidian Trilogy. However, sometimes books (or writers) exceed the bounds of manageable scope.

I’ve put down more old fantasy novels than I’d ever care to admit, simply because of a bad handling of wide scope. I’ll focus on two, however, that I did my best to wade through (and partially succeeded – I mean, I got to the end, even if I skipped some parts). Deborah Chester’s trilogy The Sword, the Ring, and the Chalice, whose sequels were phenomenal, had too many characters. This reached the point that the characters’ personalities were only skin-deep, and I as the reader felt that more dominant characters’ opinions about other characters put pressure on the reader to feel certain ways about certain characters, rather than letting the story tell me who the characters were. My favorite character Pheresa had more told about her by other characters than the author and most of it contradictory to what I actually saw of her actions. In the sequels, she gets her due (thankfully).

Another (ahem) great one is (another) trilogy, this by Keven Anderson – Terra Incognita. A fascinating world, some fascinating characters, too many plots. The sheer number of characters probably surpassed Deborah Chester’s trilogy. However, the characters’ motivations and goals were more fully explored, woven into the plot instead of running parallel. Where Anderson went wrong (for me) was that there were, at any given time, at least six or seven subplots being developed and they were done so unevenly. The more interesting plot surrounding a woman who had to navigate a very treacherous and very unstable royal court was interspersed in random segments between large chunks of a spoiled princess (in another land, I might add) and her moping father. The only thing going for them was (usually and only at first) the moral high ground in contrast to their adversaries.

So…now that you’ve been inundated with all these super long paragraphs, I suppose you’d kind of like to know what my point is.

As in all these issues, it isn’t simply the sheer number of characters or plots that creates the problem. It’s the way they’re executed. As a general rule of thumb, if you’re reading over your own work and find that one plot is very suppressed by comparison to the others, you might want to rethink its necessity.

Too many plots/characters inevitably lead to one being “the most interesting” (which one it is, of course, depends person to person). That’s good, because it appeals to a lot of people, then. Where it goes bad is when too little time can be spent in a single place. The thinner a book spreads itself, the more watered down you risk the plot becoming.

To me, lots of characters and lots of plots aren’t an immediate turn-off. They become too much when they become unbalanced. However, I’ve known plenty of people who’d say too-many-characters is an immediate roadblock, along with too many made-up names or too much exposition.

What do you think?

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