I’m writing an adventure story that takes place over a journey, and we meet many characters. I’ve been told my novel has too many, but when I look at comparison titles, big casts are de rigeur. Kidnapped has 15 named characters, though some are very minor. Treasure Island has six main characters and 15 or more minor named characters. The Silver Sword has six main characters and the same number of minor. The Hobbit has even more. How many should I have?
It’s true that journey stories tend to have large casts. In that respect they’re like the family saga, which begins with a core of characters and gathers and loses key players along the way. The constant flux of personnel is one of the pleasures of the genre. Who’s going to join? Who might leave – or even, die?
But it ain’t what you do. It’s the way you do it. Some of us can handle big casts; some can’t. So what are the signs that you’re spreading your story between too many people?
Here are the key symptoms I’ve noticed in manuscripts I’ve edited or advised on.
1 The characters don’t have enough to do. The writer knows we need to visit the main characters regularly, but when we do the scenes are dull. The characters will often be sitting around having inconsequential conversations, doing something uninteresting, or repeating a previous emotional beat. (Repetition can be good, of course, but it can also make the story seem stuck.) What should the characters be doing instead? They should be having experiences that make us curious or tug our emotions – and, importantly, we should have a sense of progress. What happens should seem new, or if it repeats, it should seem to confirm that the story situation is getting more extreme (which is progress). Of course the characters are allowed some opportunities for reflection and relaxation, but most of the time they should be increasing our interest in them.
2 Characters disappear. Sometimes writers handle this problem in the opposite way – the characters vanish for long periods because there’s nothing for them to do. But there’s a danger we may forget them.
3 The characters are too similar. The writer hasn’t developed them distinctively enough – they have similar outlooks, tastes, backgrounds, dialogue styles. Even their dilemmas might be the same. Of course, you might be making a deliberate feature of this similarity, and that’s fine. Perhaps you want to show compatibility, or that two rivals are the same even though they wear uniforms of opposing sides. But when a writer is finding their cast unmanageable they tend to create clones unintentionally.
Well it’s obvious – combine some of your characters.
Here’s where you can get creative. List them all and look for the most interesting splices. If a character is marking time before their interesting bit happens, merge them with someone who has a more active role. Revel in the possibilities to generate more story, and especially look for personal dilemmas – if you have a forensic pathologist and a murder suspect, could they be the same person? Could the lady’s maid also be the young girl who was raped in the dark lane? Could the gentle aunt who dispenses cake and sympathy also be the wartime spy?
And consider their internal landscape. Two sketchy characters could be merged into one three-dimensional, flawed, conflicted, internally contradictory character. Again, look for the unexpected – especially in their desires and story goals. (You might like this piece from the Telegraph about Pete Docter, writer of Pixar’s Inside Out, where he talks about whittling his cast down to manageable numbers)
There’s no hard and fast rule about how many main characters you can manage. It’s as many as you, with your particular story circumstances, can handle. If you can give 10 people proper significant roles and arcs, you can have 10 main characters. If you can find only 3 significant roles and arcs, you have 3 main characters.
There’s a lot more advice on developing characters – and detailed questionnaires to help you create distinctive people – in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel.
Let’s discuss! Have you discovered you had too many characters in a novel? What made you realise? How did you tackle it, and did it strengthen the story? Have you found you have a personal limit for the number of characters you can handle?
My guest this week used to be a classical violinist. She says music informs every word she writes, expressing states of feeling that she then strives to render in words. Her novel is a biographical story about the little-known author Dorothy Richardson, who pioneered the stream of consciousness technique, although she is overshadowed today by Virginia Woolf. In the novel, Richardson is invited to stay with a friend who is married to HG Wells, which is the start of a tangled and tumultuous affair. It’s a novel full of love and loss, with a soundtrack to match. She is Louisa Treger and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack – and if you comment you could win a copy of her novel.
I’ve had this interesting email: ‘A literary agent told me my dialogue sounded lifeless and unconvincing and that my characters talked only about plot information. What might be missing? What could I do to improve?’
What’s good dialogue?
First of all, although dialogue is one of the ways we can unfold the story, it’s more than an exposition vehicle. Note that word ‘lifeless’ in the agent’s assessment: good dialogue brings a quality of real experience. It lets the reader eavesdrop on people who are experiencing the story first hand. Even in a first-person narrative, we need dialogue from other characters or the world may seem less vivid.
(Of course, you might do this deliberately, perhaps to create a highly coloured or unreliable view of the world. But usually even a first-person narrative will let the other characters speak for themselves.)
However, characters obviously must talk about what’s happening – who is going where, what so-and-so had done to someone else, what everyone should try next. So how should writers handle it? What might my correspondent’s manuscript be missing?
Again, look at the word lifeless. And consider another word that goes with it: emotion.
It’s all about emotion
I would bet the missing ingredient was emotion. And emotion comes from the writer connecting with the characters. If I talk about something I’m worried about, it colours my vocabulary, my body language, the questions I ask. So the first thing I’d recommend is:
Be aware of how each character feels about the situation. Aim to convey that, not the information.
Second, consider the characters’ personalities. Expressive, confident types might tell everybody what they’re feeling. What goes on in their heads comes straight out of their mouths. More private people might find it hard to articulate their worries to another person.
Check your characters’ personalities How does this particular person show they’re worried? And – a bigger question – how thoroughly have you developed your story people?
Relationships – how do they feel about the person they are talking to? Irritated, calmed, excited, flirtatious, threatened, grudging, hesitant?
And don’t forget:
Individual agendas – what personal concerns do the characters have in the scene? Are they hiding anything? Are they competing with the other characters in any way, and do they want to show this? Are they fishing for information?
If you’re finding this tricky
Write dialogue and narrative on separate days
Relax. To write convincing dialogue you need to make a mental gear change. You stop being the storyteller who knows everything. You inject yourself into the souls of the people who are caught up in the events. Many writers find it’s easier to concentrate either on narrative or dialogue in a session. And sometimes, if a character is quite different from you, you might need to concentrate a session on just their lines.
Riff, then edit
It’s hard to get the great lines instantly. Allow yourself to write a riffing draft where the characters natter. Let them go off piste if they want – natural conversation does that. Tune into their voices, their fears, their hidden agendas. Once you’re warmed up, they’re sure to surprise you too, so have fun with it. Then come back on a different day and pan for gold. Look for sections that enshrine the important differences between the characters’ attitudes, and their similarities too. Look for remarks that seem to underline a theme. Cut all of this together to make a dialogue scene full of emotion – and plot significance.
There’s a lot more advice on dialogue in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, as well as questionnaires to help you develop your fictional people.
Let’s discuss! What would you add? Have you had to add life to your characters’ dialogue? How did you do it?
Our show on Surrey Hills Radio just got this lovely write-up on a new website, This Is Wild. I’m not sure how we fit the wild agenda, but the interviewer has cited our enthusiasm for all things of publishing, our robust arguments about how you pronounce the Norrell of Jonathan Strange and our music collection. (Okay; my music collection.)
We talk about how the show began, and how the fans made our early episodes into a party on Facebook. (Chriss from Whoknowswhere and Henry in Hyding should also be on that list.) There are a few useful writing tips in among all that, as well as pointers for making friends with local bookshops. And if you prefer audio, you can listen to the whole interview on Soundcloud from the This is Wild site.
In other terribly exciting news, Lifeform Three has just been selected as one of just 200 self-published books to be promoted nationally in libraries across the US. It’s part of an initiative called Library Journal Self-e, and you still have time to enter their awards. And Lifeform Three brings us neatly back to the Surrey Hills, because this haunting landscape was one of my inspirations.
It was final revision time on Lifeform Three. I’d been living at the computer, desperate to spend every moment with my book. And one morning I woke up unable to move my right arm.
To be truthful, I could move it, but it hurt so much I preferred not to. Reaching for my glasses left me a gasping wreck. Keeping still wasn’t much better. I’d felt it nagging the previous day, but never thought it could turn into this.
The repetitive strain injury was back.
In a way it seemed like divine retribution. In my first novel My Memories of a Future Life, I inflicted a cruel case of RSI on a concert pianist. And now it seemed that some deity that sat on the interface between art and life had thought it would be very fine to dump the same fate on me – and right when I needed my fingers most.
In my defence, I hadn’t used the RSI device glibly. Its details didn’t come from comfy googling.
My RSI journey began when I became a sub-editor in the 1990s, when desktop publishing loused up a lot of limbs and livelihoods. I’ve battled this keyboarder’s curse ever since.
In some ways, I was kind to Carol, my concert pianist protagonist. Although I gave her my gruesome medical tests, I spared her the acupuncture.
Wait, are you thinking acupuncture is benign? Do you imagine it’s like being stroked by a healing Chinese butterfly? No. It is not. When the therapist needled my painful nerves, they hurt even more. (He was perplexed, though, and probably suspected I was a wuss. I thought he was an idiot. If you poke painful parts with needles, don’t you expect they will hurt?)
I also spared Carol the buzz needles – this is acupuncture jollied along by voltage from a car battery. Meanwhile my journalist colleagues told (possibly tall?) tales of being put on racks to pull their necks straight. But in our gallery of horrors, buzz needles trumped traction; hands down.
After a year of these random tortures I said stop. The publisher paid for ergonomic chairs and such, and I think these have kept me typing over the years.
So this is the advice I’d pass on to a fellow sufferer
• Posture and straightness are important – I got a kneeling chair, because it makes you sit upright as though poised on a horse. (It’s good for horse-riders too, if lifeform threes are your thing.)
• I learned to touch type, fluttering across the keys instead of stabbing them in my own peculiar pattern. (I rather missed my invented fingering, though. It felt more expressive than the ‘correct’ way.)
• Some RSI is caused by muscle wastage, which means nerves aren’t as padded as they should be. I certainly found relief by lifting considerable weights in Body Pump classes. After a bad bout two years ago I bought a split ergonomic keyboard and joystick mouse.
• Screen breaks are sensible, if I remember them. I’m not always sensible.
• It helps to put the strain on different muscle groups. If my neck starts to rebel, I jack the monitor up to a different height. Hooray for Time-Life books.
Some people use dictation software. As a sub-editor, that was never an option for me and it’s no good for manuscript doctoring either. As a writer, it might do for drafting, but the vast majority of my creative writing is done in the edits. Like a masseur, I think through my fingers. I can’t imagine editing hands free.
I also can’t imagine how anyone can write lolling at their laptops in bed, as we see in the movies.
But sometimes all the ergonomic wisdom in the world doesn’t help me, so I go to the bad side. I get my notebook computer, put it on my knee and hunch over. A few days contorted like that gives the overused muscles a break and they recover. Or they have so far.
So these are the ways I can carry on. But a musician, like Carol in my novel, has no other way. It’s piano or nothing, and the pain of that is worse than anything physical.
Back to haunt you
We novelists have a cruel side. We’re ruthless enough to create exquisite tortures – and sensitive enough to appreciate what they are doing. When I was writing that novel I would wake at night, telling myself these questions were not to be treated lightly, asking how I would feel if I had to face them. I know I’m earning more bad karma for what I’m doing in Ever Rest.
I soldier on, bludgeoning the RSI when I have to, so that I can continue to do my own version of playing an instrument. I hope I never have to be really brave, the way I force my characters to be.
(thanks for the pic Lizspikol. This post originally appeared on the Authors Electric blog)
Do you get RSI – and what do you do about it? How bad are you to your characters? Are you grateful you don’t have to live their lives?
If you’re friends with me on Facebook you’ll already have seen this picture. Years ago I held a fancy dress party with the theme ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. My costume was The Masque of the Red Death, after the story by Edgar Allan Poe. Well this week, I was the guest of The Literary Roadhouse podcast, an online discussion group for short stories. Each week they choose a literary short story and gnaw over it for a good hour. If you want a conversation that cares about a story’s language, themes, resonances and whether it works, this is for you.
Even better, you can take part. Read the story before you listen, and you can tell them afterwards in the comments what you agree and disagree about. Indeed, they’d love it if you did.
So, to explain the splendid party picture you see here. Literary Roadhouse pick the stories by a random and bizarre game. I have only once in my life dressed up as a short story, and the hand of fate took it to Literary Roadhouse for my guest spot. Spooky. Hop over there now. If you dare.
Extremely serious question. If you had to dress as a short story, or ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’, what would your costume be? You don’t do that sort of thing? Just me, then.
My guest this week is crossing her fingers as her agent sends out her third novel. It’s called The Weight of A Piano, so you can probably see why she fits very well here. All of her fiction is heavily shaped by music behind the scenes, from a song about a widowed woman that presented her with a grieving character, to a Miles Davis piece that captured the heart and peculiar solitude of a man who has just lost his secret love. And then, of course, there’s the piano. She is Chris Cander and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
My guest this week has a novel that spans several lifetimes and puts a new spin on reincarnation – she blends thriller with romance and the supernatural with her story of neuroscientists who have unlocked the secret of reincarnation. She used music to conjure her kaleidoscope of time periods, from ancient China to the modern day, and some of her selections are astoundingly haunting – I’m astonished to discover the 1970s album recorded in the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid. Those among you who are reincarnation aficionados will have spotted the reference in the title of this post to the 1980s movie Somewhere In Time, and that was on her Soundtrack too. She is Gwendolyn Womack and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.