This post contains major spoilers for Chuck (Seasons 1 and 2) and Dexter (Season 1), 187, Blood Work, Mary Roberts Rinehart’s _The Door_, and god knows how many other books/shows/movies. It also has middlin’ spoilers for Se7en. (But Chuck and Dexter? That’s where most of the spoiling is happening… seriously, if you’re inclined to watch those shows at all, skip this essay.)
Character Economy basically says that you should never introduce two characters when you can introduce one. You need to introduce a new girlfriend for a widower at the same time you are introducing a cat burglar at the same time that you’re introducing another character’s long-lost cousin? (Oh, and the reason the guy is a widower? It’s because the cat burglar killed his wife.) MAKE THEM ALL THE SAME PERSON!
In practice, this means that the wacky neighbor that gets a handful of lines here and there throughout the movie (perhaps even asking the protagonist pointed questions as he investigates a series of unsolved murders!) is really the killer. In Chuck, the side-effect was that everybody who shows up is somehow related to his past in some sort of spy capacity. College roommate? Spy. Ex-girlfriend? Spy. Dad? Spy. It reaches the point where you know when a new character shows up and says “hi, Chuck!” that they are going to be a spy. Of course, not just a spy who sent the Intersect to Chuck but a spy who knew so much more about what’s really going on than Chuck does. Not only was the roommate a spy, but he was a spy that knew that Chuck is one of the most subliminally sensitive test subjects, like, ever. Not only is the ex-girlfriend a spy, but she’s a spy for The Evil Spy Company. Not only is Dad a spy, he’s the guy who invented the Intersect in the first place!
Oh, and Chuck’s new handler? The one he has a crush on? Used to date Chuck’s roomie.
Oh the webs they weave! Now, given that Chuck is intended to be a lighthearted action romantic comedy, it doesn’t really particularly matter that everybody knows everybody (and now Chuck is making his own introductions), right? What happens when we use Character Economy in a seriousish, adultish, “gritty” story?
We get Dexter.
Dexter is, of course, a serial killer who uses his serial killing for good. He works as a blood splatter tech at the police force and everybody loves him except for the one cop who, for some reason, is painted as unsympathetic for finding the serial killer to be creepy. In the first season, anyway, we meet Dexter and, in the first *EPISODE*, we find that there is a *SECOND* serial killer in town. As the season progresses, we find out that Dexter’s sister is finally dating a nice guy. The nice guy is a prosthetics expert at the hospital who helps an almost-victim of the serial killer get a new leg. AND THE NICE GUY IS THE NEW SERIAL KILLER!!! Moreover, we find out that Dexter has a backstory that involves having an older brother. The new serial killer is the older brother.
I am not making this up.
I suppose that it is a testament to how much we’ve all internalized this is the movie Se7en. Seriously, remember how surprising it was that Kevin Spacey was John Doe? You watched half of the movie and the first time you see the guy is on the third reel! It was absolutely novel.
Now, this is a somewhat different dynamic than the one that you find in “Fair Play” mysteries where all of the clues available to the detective are available to the reader thus allowing them to figure who of the assembled characters dunnit (the butler, for the record). (When this dynamic is handled poorly, you can get a movie like 187 where they tease you for the entire movie about whether Samuel L. Jackson dismembered/killed the bad students despite showing someone doing this without giving you a single credible alternative who would have means/motive to do so… and it turns out, yep, it was him.)
Which brings me, finally, to the version of this that strikes me as the absolute best way to deal with the issue of character economy is to let the audience know what happened and then tell the story of the detective (this is for live-action only, of course… this is one of the reasons that “the book was better” is every inch a cliche). Examples include: Oedipus, Arthurian Legend, and, of course, the appointment in Samarra.
When you’re stuck to keeping the show under X minutes, you’re going to automatically create situations where we know that the guy they talked to for two minutes at the beginning of the movie is the guy who has been pretending to be a ghost (and also the brother-in-law we thought was the murder victim). When you have all the time in the world (a novel, a legend) you can afford to introduce characters enough to have one of them be the mystery. If you have to keep it to X, you’re going to be stuck with Character Economy.