One of the challenges of writing characters is when there are groups of characters, particularly large groups like parties. The challenge of large groups is often the urge to describe as many people as possible to show the reader that we’re in a large group. However, sometimes when we’re describing a large group the less is more approach often works between. This is because when we draw the reader’s attention to something in fiction it often imbues importance to that detail, particularly if we’re describing something from the perspective of a character, rather than an omniscient narrator. What we describe from the perspective of a character tells us about the character (as discussed in previous articles) therefore there are certain things they wouldn’t notice, and they can’t notice everything.
Writing crowds can begin with broad strokes. We can tell the reader that there were a lot of people about; we might describe the press as the character tries to move through them, we might mention swerving to avoid them, or we could drop details about what they’re doing. These details don’t have to be precise, we can say there were people gathered around having conversations but we don’t have to say what these conversations are. If we imagine being in a crowd ourselves then there are always people we can see talking but can’t hear, either because they’re too far away or it’s too loud. We might pick a group out and say they’re talking loudly about something, when we do this we can include snatches of overheard conversation, or simply mention the subject they’re speaking about, or we might not say at all, once again it may be too loud to make out the actual words. The problem with including snatches of conversation is that it can make whatever it is the character we’re following is doing. However, we can use this to our advantage if we want a sense of confusion in the scene.
We can also create the impression of a crowd through describing the senses. There might be a confusion of scents, perfumes, colognes or cigarettes to name a few. There’s the impression of noise, perhaps two characters are speaking and having trouble hearing each other or lean in closer to make sure they can be heard. Touch can be used if they bump into people, or they might be hot because of so many people being in a confined space. We can even mention the sorts of things people are wearing if we want, certain situations may suggest certain clothes such as coats on cold days or uniforms in a workplace.
We can move our character through a crowded scene and pick out particular things to describe. They might see someone they know and wave, spy the buffet table and aim for it, or see someone they don’t like and squeeze through the crowd to avoid them. We may have other characters there who are important to the story and we can mention them, if the character sees them. We can have another character involved in the story at the party but not mention them if the character doesn’t see them if we choose. The other character can mention later on that they were there, particularly if they’re agreeing that they saw some event, or it can be implied they were there, such as if they’re co-workers at a work party. Alternatively, if another character was supposed to be there or claims they were there but they were unseen it can be used as a clue or a red-herring.
The important thing to remember is that, simply because we have a lot of characters present doesn’t mean we have to describe all the character and everything that is happening.