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Among a million other ambitions under the general heading of "Writing," I have this fantasy where I write a major series, several books long with a giant cast.

But I started thinking. In giant series like the recently famous Song of Ice and Fire, Lord of the Rings, Golden Compass, every other giant series ever, there are more than a hundred characters. Maybe even hundreds, sometimes. And of course every writer wants to make the next Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka, Dumbledore, Holmes...awesome characters who everyone remembers.

But when you have that many characters, I feel you simply can't make them all interesting. If you did, you'd be emphasizing things that may not matter. The audience always wants to see more of an interesting character, and you'd be bringing something to the foreground that had no place there. Many characters, both minor and occasionally major, have to be more flat and generic. 95% of the elves in LotR barely speak at all.

So I suppose my question comes to something like this--> How would you decide when to give someone personality, and when not to? Has anyone here ever consciously kept a deliberate balance in this category?

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I've lightly edited this, to remove the discussion-y aspects, since Stack Exchange sites and discussion questions don't play well together; great question otherwise. For an example of mixing modern technology with fantasy, you might like to have a look at Charles Stross's The Atrocity Archives. (No boring characters there, though.) –  Neil Fein Apr 18 '12 at 17:14
    
Mercedes Lackey had the "Elves on the Road" universe, although I don't think it sold well: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… –  Lauren Ipsum Apr 18 '12 at 19:18
    
In So You Want To Be A Wizard and its sequels, magic is described very similarly to a programming language. –  Izkata Apr 18 '12 at 21:21
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Ah, perfect. Thanks. Just trying to hone my newly acquired editing ability. –  Aerovistae Jul 2 '12 at 19:17
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In the old Star Trek series, they simply put on a red shirt. (Of course, that could have meant disposable just as easily as it meant boring.) –  J.R. Jul 8 '12 at 18:04
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3 Answers

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The real question is: boring to the writer, boring to the reader, or boring to the other characters?

If the character bores you as the writer, either change the character or excise him/her. That person has no place in your story. I just had to do this myself two weeks ago, and it made a massive, awesome improvement in the entire book.

If the character is boring to the reader (you're getting notes from your betas reading, "Man, Snodgrass again? This guy is made of cardboard! Why are you giving him so much screen time?" when he's supposed to be a major villain), you have a problem. Even your NPCs and your cameos shouldn't make the reader feel the need to flip to the next page. Not every walk-on needs a full biography, but if your character talks to the same barista every morning, give her a nose-ring with a bell on it or something. Or the main character should notice her green eyes, which make her think of the green scarf her girlfriend gave her ten years ago, and she thinks of the scarf every morning for a split second whenever she sees the kid's green eyes.

If the character is boring to the other characters, that's actually fine. That's drama. Your main character should roll her eyes when Snodgrass trudges into the room. And you don't have to redeem Snodgrass from being boring, either; he can just be the comic relief by being boring. But that makes him interesting in his own way — what boring thing is he going to say next, and can your main character refrain from popping him one in the jaw?

To focus on your question, yes, even the 95% of the elves who don't speak have "personalities," even if they don't get names. They are beautiful, graceful, solemn; trackers, singers, archers; Galadriel's women who weave cloaks, etc. Don't over-focus on the barista with the bell in her nose if she's not the point of the scene, but if there's any interaction beyond "she got coffee on her way to work," then bell the barista.

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You're awesome, that last line had me laughing so hard –  Aerovistae Apr 18 '12 at 21:17
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I suppose for me, the answer is not choosing to give someone personality or not, it is about how important the character is to the story. I have written people who are mainly identified by a name, and maybe a few lines, because that is the limit of my characters interaction with them - looking from their view, they know very little about the other characters, so the reader also knows very little about it.

Sometimes, you can define all that is needed about a character in a short line, and that gives you all of the relevant facts:

"Snodgrass behaved, as always, with sniveling acquiescence"

If all you need is a character who does what he is told, you have it all there. You need to know nothing else about him if that is the limit of his function within the story. He could play a major role, appearing a lot, but if he is just taking messages, doing jobs, you can refer to him as Snodgrass, and you have everything about him.

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Characters are people, just like you and me. We all have our own little biographies and memories that shape our character, define our personality and predict and explain our behavior. Some of those biographies will inherently be more interesting than others and some will be engaging to only a few and not others.

The bank teller, the guy behind you in line at the supermarket or the young lady standing next to you in the elevator could be made of cardboard, as for as you could ever care, and in a story they could be. But they all have their own secret narrative.

I don't believe that you should set out to intentionally make your characters interesting or memorable. As a writer the vapors of your imagination coalesce into entirely new people that you then place into a situation of your choosing and like the silver spheres of a pinball bonus round they will careen and veer in an unpredictable behavior around the stage you've set for them.

You can add order to the chaos by providing every character of note (let's say all speaking roles) with at very least a mini-biography (main characters should have enough of a backstory to fill an hour on the Biography channel). Providing a back story will give you a way to predict the way someone will behave in a certain situation. Even if (especially, really) the reader will never know the backstory your plot cohesion will benefit immensely from it.

I guarantee that JK Rowling, JRR Tolkien, George RR Martin and anyone else who created an epic fantasy universe has notebooks and index cards full of important information about each and every character they ever created. You'll never see them but as a reader (and a writer) you'll appreciate that they're there. For instance, Dumbledore was gay. Rowling never said this outright in her books and left few hints about this aspect of his personality but I guarantee that somewhere in her house there is a notebook with the words "Dumbledore is gay" scrawled in pencil in the upper corner of the margin.

That being said, not all of your character's backstories will be inherently interesting, just as not everyone you meet has an interesting story. But they will be have one. And a character doesn't have to be lively to be memorable. Think HAL in 2001. That's a character who is completely devoid of personality. Yet he is memorable and interesting. Marvin the paranoid android would be remarkably boring to be around. Yet he is memorable and interesting.

Build your characters to a greater or lesser degree based on the level of interaction your readers and the main characters will have with them. Don't try to make them interesting. Just make them, and let the reader decide if they're interesting.

Update:

Since the question has morphed slightly since I posted my response allow me to provide a post script.

While I stand by the crux of my response (simply create new people and ensure that anyone worth mentioning has depth) there is a caveat or two. Readers will be drawn to some characters and not others, and that's okay. But if a character isn't interesting to you, he won't be interesting to your readers and characters that bore the reader give them an excuse to stop reading. But if there's a character who is intentionally boring then I believe he should be so mind-numbingly boring that he's simply unforgettable.

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Good answer; I'm interested to hear different perspectives on this one. You really took some poetic license in that third paragraph :) –  Aerovistae Apr 18 '12 at 18:21
    
In response to your postscript, I distinctly recall a character in a Dickens novel (I think it was Hard Times) who was SO mind-numbingly boring, as you say, that I could never forget her. That was simply the purpose. She NEVER shut up. Just kept talking and talking and talking about all sorts of dumb $)*@ that nobody -- not the reader, not the other characters, not anyone -- could possibly care about. I imagine Dickens must've had a ball writing her. Every other character would always make an excuse to get away when she began talking. –  Aerovistae Apr 20 '12 at 3:24
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