Jan 252011

The issue of “crowd control”—introducing, developing and dramatizing multiple (more than, arbitrairly, 4) characters in a story—is a central one for short story writers.  Crowd control matters no less for novelists, but with greater chunks of time and physical space, a novelist can more evenly pace character density out over the span of several hundred pages.  The story writer, constrained by narrative time and simple page counts, faces different challenges as she introduces a large cast onto a small stage.

In William Maxwell’s “Haller’s Second Home,” (first published in 1941) eight significant characters are portrayed and at least as many minor characters are mentioned within a fourteen page story.  Maxwell uses a variety of techniques to keep this (relatively) large cast of characters distinct and autonomous.

{For simplicity sake, here are the eight principal characters in order of appearance: Haller, a family friend of the Mendelsohns; Mrs. Mendelsohn, the family matriarch; Renee , the family cook; Abbie M., 25 year old daughter; Nathan M., oldest brother; Dr. Mendelsohn , a medical doctor; Leo M., the youngest son; and Francis Whitehead, another family friend, who, like Haller, has an open invitation to the visit the Mendelsohn’s home.}

(Listen to NPR’s Terri Gross interview Maxwell on Fresh Air)


The story takes place at the Mendelsohn’s apartment one evening in 1941.  The central dramatic action surrounds Haller’s visit for Abbie’s twenty-fifty birthday, a party that Abbie says she doesn’t want to celebrate. Haller enters the home carrying a gift, two albums of the Finnish composer Sibelius, but the record player is broken. In Abbie’s room, Haller watches her care for a sick kitten. (Kittens, in addition to characters, abound in this story!) Haller discusses travel plans with Nathan, then at dinner, he is forced to listens to Dr. Mendelsohn drone on about a patient.  The mood is subdued and friendly, but hardly celebratory.  “All in the world he (Haller) wanted, behind those big horn-rimmed glasses, was to be loved…”  Haller finds acceptance in this home, but not the love he desires, and certainly not from Abbie who seems to resent his presence. But everything changes when Francis Whitehead bursts in after dinner.  Whitehead, on a 2-day pass from basic training in New Jersey, receives the hero’s welcome that Haller so desperately desires.  The other men in the room seem enraptured by Whitehead’s new-found soldierly aura.  The story ends with Haller quietly and abruptly exiting the party while Whitehead spends the night, finding, ironically, the very love Haller seeks but fails to find in his so-called second home.


By tightly restricting the setting and narrative time, Maxwell eliminates the reader’s potential confusion, allowing characters to move on and off the page without muddling.  Maxwell creates a large cast, but they are tightly held within a cage of time and space.  This helps.  The reader always knows where and when the story is taking place.

Maxwell also mixes description with action.  Typically static, description about physical appearances can blanch into an indistinctive mess, but Maxwell avoids this pitfall by mixing in dramatic action with the details:

“Renee was in the kitchen.  She was a West Indian, from Barbados, and she had only been with the Mendelsohns a few months, but in this short time she had become the family clearinghouse for all secrets  and private messages.”

“Then Leo, who had stayed at school for a meeting of the Geographical Society.  He came into the dining room quietly, a tall thin youngster with the grey cat balancing serenely on his shoulders.”

“Nathan was dark—dark hair, dark eyes, dark skin—and very handsome.  Originally he had his mother’s beautiful nose, but when he was a small child a dog bit him.  He was playing with the dog and teasing it and it bit him on the nose.”

Each of these physical descriptions of appearance comes coupled with action, even if the active parts are told in flashback.  By triggering the reader’s imagination with drama, the characters’ distinctiveness remains fresh and clear.  Were it physical description alone, it might be hard to keep these characters straight.

Another useful technique Maxwell frequently employs is akin to foreshadowing.  For most of the eight central characters in this story, Maxwell ‘introduces’ them to the reader before they actually appear in scene.  By having his characters talked about before appearing, the reader anticipates meeting the character before such meeting actually occurs.  In the following example, Mrs. Mendelsohn is speaking to Haller.  She introduces three characters, none of whom has yet appeared in the story

“‘Ab (Abbie) has forbidden Renee to bake a cake, so I’m just trying to rustle something together before Father comes up and is angry because dinner isn’t ready.’”

Notice the information the reader can glean from this:  We know that Abbie has ‘forbidden’ the baking of a cake.  We know that Father likes his routines, and has a temper.  We know that Renee takes orders from the children of this family.  None of these characteristics are significant in and of themselves, but they do the work of setting up the reader’s expectations and they pre-identify characters who will soon enter.  Maxwell does this again and again in this story, so that everyone (except Haller) is introduced in some way before they appear in action.

A final but important technique is Maxwell’s intentional and careful use of dialogue.  Each of these eight characters has lines of dialogue in this story, and a few of the minor characters do as well.  This technique of assigning lines clearly borrows heavily from the playwriting.  Too often in fiction, writers introduce characters but then let them pass in silence.  By giving each of his characters distinct lines to speak, Maxwell emphasizes the character’s importance on the metaphorical stage of the story.  And the dialogue count is meaningful too.  The actual number of spoken lines indicate the relative importance or ‘weight’ of each character in the story.  Renee, the cook, has only a couple of lines, but her importance to the story is not as central actor but as a hinge-character, the reason for the Francis Whitehead coming to dinner.  The parents have less dialogue than the children and their friends, again back-grounding the parents.  It is, after all, the young people’s story.  Haller, Francis and Abbie, the three central characters, appropriately have the most lines.


The short story writer risks confusion and frustration by juggling too many characters, but Maxwell demonstrates that it can be managed with carefully crafted steps.  The advantage for having a large cast in shorter fiction is that the polyphonous voices create a novel-like effect in much smaller space.  Very little action happens in “Haller’s Second Home”, but because there is so much resonance with the cast of characters, so many inter-personal dynamics at work, Haller’s outsider status, contrasted with Whitehead’s insider status, creates an essentially quiet but powerful story.  Maxwell’s story is at once heartbreaking and beautiful.  Set against the backdrop of a coming war, he effectively and efficiently creates a large canvas without wasting space or words.  He creates a family story, with vibrant, dynamic characters, that a lesser writer would need hundreds of pages to achieve.

-Richard Farrell

  8 Responses to “Crowd Control: Managing Multiple Characters in Short Fiction — Richard Farrell”

  1. Super helpful! Thank you.

  2. This article got me thinking about minor characters and their purpose in the novel form. It seems writers juggling a cast of characters in both the short story and novel can benefit from Rich’s insight:

    • Mix description with action with regard to characters
    • Pre-identify characters who will soon enter
    • Use dialog with intention

    I’m going to review my novel-in-progress to find the static, descriptions about physical appearances that “blanch into an indistinctive mess.” Thanks Rich!

  3. And I’ll chime in from the CNF gallery: Rich, I can really use these techniques when I’m juggling scientists, ranchers, etc. I have a post here where I look at a couple of well-populated CNF works, but I’m always on the look-out for more ideas. The action/description link, in particular, is a good one for me. Thanks!

    • Incidentally, the “pre-identification” of characters happens a lot in CNF. In my essay I called this a “suspended” introduction (character mentioned in passing before actually entering the action). That’s Doug’s word (I think I called it a “stuttering” introduction–far less graceful).

  4. Thanks guys. I’m now on the hunt to see how many characters good writers can get into scenes. One scene, how many people? Seems certainly applicable to CNF, too.

  5. This is a timely little lecture shot for me, as I am in the throes of fine-tuning the opening story to my linked story collection. It takes place in a general store. Its purpose is to establish a community voice while individuating each character. It’s meant to show how the protagonist/narrator stands on the outside of community, looking in. It’s about loneliness in groups. Your comments here, and the introduction to this story in particluar, have been very helpful. I look forward to the next piece on scene, as my story needs help with that as well.


  6. Plus, Terri Gross and Alice Munro are two of my favorite women. I grew up outside of Philadelphia, and all my life have wished I was a Canadian.

  7. Thanks Rich! Actually, this is quite helpful to me. I’m thinking of writing my critical thesis on how to integrate peripheral characters/people in memoir. Do you know of any sources in which I could refer? Thanks much! Melissa

    PS: I remember clearly the workshop about crowd control; I was there and haven’t forgotten.

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