How many characters spoil the plot?

Last night I saw Prometheus, the supposed prequel to 1973 film Alien, with Sigourney Weaver. Frankly, the plot didn’t impress me, and the film suffered from what I suspect is a common fault in films and books: too many “main” characters. It becomes difficult to emotionally identify with any one character. I felt no real identification with any of the on-screen characters in Prometheus. When I think back over some of the best films, there are usually one or two, maybe three main characters, but that’s the limit. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoohas Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist.

Poster for 1984, from Wikipedia

Catch 22 has Captain Yossarian. We see the other characters, but none of them gets even remotely equal time with Yossarian.  George Orwell’s 1984 has Winston Smith. As best I recall we never see his lover, Julia, nor his torturer, O’Brien, without him. As a result, we are totally invested in Winston. Even though Harry Potter has Hermione, Ron, Dumbledore, and Snape, we know who the main character is. (And Rowling had the advantage of seven books over which to tell her story.) Steel Magnolias had half a dozen, but we are mostly invested in Julia Roberts, as Shelby, who is diabetic, not expected to be able to carry a child, and becomes pregnant anyway. She needs a kidney transplant, gets it, it fails, and finally she has to be disconnected from life support.

In order for me to be invested in the fate of a character, they need to be centre-front. They need to have a problem I can identify with.

So what about you? Do too many characters make it hard for you to get invested in a film or book? What’s your limit? what do you prefer? when you think about the films you thought were “best” films, how many lead characters did they have?

(On an unrelated topic, Piper Bayard and Holmes have an interesting article on spy ships between WWI and WWII. at Piperbayard.wordpress.com)

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My novel ‘Fire Damage,’ an action thriller, is available on Amazon Kindle, at:
The novel is based on the Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo, which released Sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system in the 1990s. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can download the app to read it on your computer or phone from here:
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The world is getting stranger: two hours to make a lunch box.

 Would you spend two hours making a lunch box for your kids, so that the food looks like a picture of Barack Obama, Michael Jackson or Harrison Ford? No? Well in Japan the way food looks is almost as important as it how it tastes. And keeping up appearances matters. You can’t just send your kids off to school with a few sandwiches in some cling film. Japanese mothers create artistic looking combinations of rice, fish, seaweed and vegetables that look like true works of art.

Totoro (Image from Totoro.org)

Some of the lunches look like a piano or the control console for a video game. Some look like Hello Kitty, or Totoro, a Japanese cartoon character. Some look like people. Tomomi Maruo runs classes in her apartment where she teaches other mothers to make lunchboxes. The lunch boxes with faces take two hours.

In this BBC story young mother Yayoi Uemura, one of Tomomi’s students confesses that she feels pressured by Japanese culture to come up with something  novel to match the other moms. “I feel, oh my gosh, it’s sports day, the expectation is getting high, you have to sit next to other moms. I feel pressured.” And most of the kids featured in the BBC story, the ones eating these lunches, are in kindergarten.

Barack Obama lunch, made from rice and seaweed.

Watching this story, I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for the mothers. As well as going to the office, or working in a shop, or doing ordinary housework, the thought of spending two hours on a kid’s lunch box seems, well, pretty demanding.

I’ve been to Japan three times as a tourist, and had Japanese students board at my house. I was learning the language until the writing part got so time-consuming I couldn’t continue. Japan is a country where part of the culture says you have to fit in. One Japanese saying is “Deru kugi wa utareru.” The nail that sticks out gets hammered down. It means you conform or else.

Watching the BBC story made me stop to think: is there anything that I do that serves no real purpose except  to fit in with other people? We’re all social beings. We all try to fit in to some degree with other people, but most of the time we’re not very conscious of it. Sometimes, at family gatherings, we have to hold our tongue for the sake of harmony. But I struggle to come up with anything in Western culture that even remotely resembles what these mothers are doing. Is there anything I’m missing here? Are there things we do just to fit in? What do you think?