Tag Archives: characters

How Many Characters Do You Need?

Like the bromide about too many cooks, an overabundance of characters can spoil the novel. How many characters is too many? Well, like a lot of questions about writing, it depends. The type of story, the genre, the plot, can all affect how many characters show up in a novel. An epic like the Harry Potter series has a castle full of characters. A “quiet” novel that explores interpersonal relationships may have only a few.

I came across a helpful exercise by Janice Hardy in a June 2013 blog post.

Hardy’s exercise goes like this: Take a sheet of paper. Make two boxes in the middle, equally spaced apart. Write the name of the protagonist in one box and the name of the antagonist in the other. Write the names of other characters below the protagonist and above the antagonist, depending on which characters are connected to with character. Next, draw a solid line if the character is directly connected to the protagonist or the antagonist and a dotted line if indirectly connected. Finally, draw lines between the characters who are directly or indirectly related to each other.

“If you had a hard time finding room for all your boxes, that’s a red flag you might have too many characters,” she wrote. “Same if you have a lot of characters who have zero connections to your protagonist, but connections to other characters in the book. Lots of people with dotted lines to one person could be ones you can combine (like those extra thugs).”

The real value of this exercise, Hardy writes, is that it “forces you to think about how the various characters are connected.”

It is also visual. If your paper is cluttered with boxes, you just might have too many characters.

There are two main problems with having an abundance of characters, blogger and author KM Weiland writes.

First, when there are too many characters, the reader may be unable to keep track of who is who. Second, a writer who introduces too many characters runs the risk of fragmenting the narrative.

Most of the posts I’ve read on this subject advise something like this: How many characters do you need? Just enough to tell the story. That doesn’t fully answer the question, though. The real test for me is whether each character fulfills a purpose, either large of small. For example, let’s say the main character does something stupid as a teen-ager and is arrested. The cop who makes the arrest serves one purpose. He doesn’t need to reappear, unless he decides to mentor the young man.

Every main character needs a supporting cast. This cast can be small or large. It may include the following: sidekicks, mentors, confidants, spouses, siblings, parents, teachers, co-workers, friends, enemies. You get the picture. The writer may not choose to include everyone on the list; she will choose carefully depending on the genre and the nature of the story.

A related question is how many Point of View (POV) characters should a novel include? Personally I have trouble keeping up with more than five or six POV characters, yet I’ve read stories with as many as nine and the writer was able to make the narrative work. However, it takes tremendous skill to juggle nine or 10 POV characters without diluting the narrative.

What about you? How many characters do you create for each story? How many is too many?

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Author Spotlight: Alice Munro

Alice Munro occupies a special place in my pantheon of modern authors. She is part of my Holy Trinity, along with Anne Tyler and Alice McDermott. Long recognized as one of the pre-eminent short story writers of our time, Munro received the 2009 Man Booker International Prize in recognition of her lifetime body of work. She is often called the “Canadian Chekhov.”

Ironically, Munro didn’t set out to write short stories. “I never intended to be a short-story writer,” Munro said in a November 1986 interview with The New York Times. ”I started writing them because I didn’t have time to write anything else – I had three children. And then I got used to writing stories, so I saw my material that way, and now I don’t think I’ll ever write a novel.”

She found short stories more satisfying than novels. ”I don’t really understand a novel,” she said in the same interview. ”I don’t understand where the excitement is supposed to come in a novel, and I do in a story. There’s a kind of tension that if I’m getting a story right I can feel right away, and I don’t feel that when I try to write a novel. I kind of want a moment that’s explosive, and I want everything gathered into that.”

Munro sets many of her stories in her native southwestern Ontario Province. The small towns of rural Huron County provide the backdrop for her complex female characters, many of whom feel the urge to break away from their roots, a theme explored to great effect in her 2004 collection, Runaway.

As is the case with Anne Tyler’s work, Munro writes quiet stories that plumb the interior depths of complicated relationships. Some critics say little of consequence happens in her stories, but that is her strength. Munro doesn’t need body counts or car wrecks to keep the reader riveted to her stories.

“Munro’s writing creates…an empathetic union among readers, critics most apparent among them. We are drawn to her writing by its verisimilitude—not of mimesis, so-called and…’realism’—but rather the feeling of being itself…of just being a human being,” Robert Thacker wrote of Munro’s work

In an interview on the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group website, Munro spoke about her approach to writing and why she was attracted to short stories. “I want to tell a story, in the old-fashioned way—what happens to somebody—but I want that ‘what happens’ to be delivered with quite a bit of interruption, turnarounds, and strangeness. I want the reader to feel something that is astonishing—not the ‘what happens’ but the way everything happens. These long short story fictions do that best, for me.”

She also discussed her relationship with her characters. “I always have to know my characters in a lot of depth—what clothes they’d choose, what they were like at school, etc…And I know what happened before and what will happen after the part of their lives I’m dealing with. I can’t see them just now, packed into the stress of the moment. So I suppose I want to give as much of them as I can.”

Munro also made the astute observation that memory is a key element of story-telling. “Memory is the way we keep telling ourselves our stories—and telling other people a somewhat different version of our stories. We can hardly manage our lives without a powerful ongoing narrative. And underneath all these edited, inspired, self-serving stories there is, we suppose, some big bulging awful mysterious entity called THE TRUTH, which our fictional stories are supposed to be poking at and grabbing pieces of. What would be more interesting as a life’s occupation? One of the ways we do this, I think, is by trying to look at what memory does (different tricks at different stages of our lives) and at the way people’s different memories deal with the same (shared) experience. The more disconcerting the differences are, the more the writer in me feels an odd exhilaration.”

At the age of 81, Munro is still going strong. Her publisher announced recently she will publish her 13th book of short stories in November, Dear Life. I can’t wait.

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Plumbing the Clutter to Unearth Our Memories

Anyone who has gone on a cleaning binge knows there are stories in our debris. It’s amazing what one comes across when cleaning out the garage: roller skates, baseball bats, children’s art work, report cards. It may just be “stuff,” as George Carlin used to say, but it can trigger a host of memories.

Last weekend, while cleaning my garage, I came across one small item in particular that brought back a tender memory. It was a green plastic water bottle with my son’s name written in black magic marker. I remembered it well. My son was eight or nine years old. It was his first summer at day camp. He had his water bottle and lunch sack. On the first day I drove him to the bus. He was quiet—a little too quiet. As he stepped on the bus, he looked back quickly. This might have been an agonizing moment, but I was comforted with the knowledge his older sister happened to be a counselor at his camp and would keep an eye on him. He was fine and he returned to that camp year after year.

I couldn’t bear to throw away that water bottle. I put it in the dishwasher. It may eventually get thrown out, but not by me.

What does all this have to do with fiction writing? One of the best techniques for “showing” back story through narrative is to place the main character in a setting where she is going through items from her past. In his well-crafted 2002 novel, Wish You Were Here, Stewart O’Nan used this technique. The book follows three generations of a family as they vacation for the last time at their summer lake resort. There is a scene in which Ken, the matriarch’s son, is going through all of the stuff in the garage and comes across a pair of work gloves, still shaped to his father’s hands. It triggers all sorts of thoughts. It was one of those small details that really worked.

Kathryn Magendie used this technique to great effect in her Graces trilogy. Virginia Kate Carey, the main character, returned to her childhood home in West Virginia following the death of her mother. As she is going through her mother’s things, every object summons up events from her past, some happy, but many sad.

Here are some tips for getting at the heart of your story by making your character root through her stuff:

  • Be specific. Don’t just describe a pair of old work gloves. Do as O’Nan did; paint a picture of the stiff gloves in the shape of the father’s hands. This is vivid and powerful stuff.
  • Avoid a “list” narrative. Pause to let the main character reflect on the meaning of these objects.
  • Be selective in using this technique. A scene sprinkled here and there is effective, but a whole novel devoted to a character sifting through his stuff would quickly bore the reader.
  • Choose objects with meaning: clothes, a children’s drawing, an ornate mirror, for instance.

Writing about cleaning up the clutter is not sexy but there is gold in that garbage.

Have you ever written a scene where the character looks through old stuff and finds meaning or a revelation?

 

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Bad First Drafts-Not Just for Beginners

In her classic craft of fiction book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott devoted an entire chapter to bad first drafts. She used a more colorful term, but her overriding message was almost all first drafts are bad. This reminded me of a quote I came across on Karen Miller’s blog from Terry Pratchett that was so on target I wrote it down: “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

Whether new or experienced, most writers find the first draft a daunting task. Writers are still discovering their story and yet they expect too much from the first draft. When the story isn’t flowing the way it should, writers get discouraged. Experienced writers work through this, but novice writers should mind Anne Lamott’s advice. The truth is first drafts don’t have to be great, or even good. First drafts just have to be finished. Even if the writer believes his first draft is the worst piece of fiction ever written, there’s a story somewhere amid those 80,000 words. There are characters waiting to be filled out and completed. The writer’s job is to find the story and the characters, polish them and refine them.

The first draft is easier when the writer approaches it with an uninhibited mindset. As Lamott put it, “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.”

Like many writers, I constantly fight the urge to edit my first draft. I’m one of those writers who has to read what he wrote in the previous session before continuing with the first draft. This does two things: it gets me into the flow of the story and I also discover some glaring error that I correct. However, we must recognize that too much editing and obsessing over scenes already written can derail the writer.

Here’s another quote from Lamott that I should tape to my laptop: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper.”

When you finish your first draft, put it aside for at least four weeks. When you return to it, some of the questions to ask are:

  • What is the essence of the story? Is the premise fully developed? Is the theme evident?
  • What is the main character’s strongest trait? Biggest weakness? Is it evident to the reader? Does the main character grow or change?
  • What is the central conflict in the story and has the writer maximized it to its full potential?
  • Is there enough tension throughout to sustain interest in the story?
  • What is the best scene? What is the worst scene? Can it be cut?
  • Who is the weakest character? Can this character be cut without harming the story?

Here are some other perspectives on first drafts:

Karen Miller

Harriet Smart

Learn to Write Fiction

Writer Unboxed-Anne Greenwood Brown

Write to Done

Writer’s Digest

What’s your view on first drafts? Do you labor over them or rush to get them done?

 

 

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Lessons from NaNoWriMo

My first National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) is in the books. In case you don’t know what Nanowrimo is, it’s a contest where the goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, starting on November 1. The idea is to strive for quantity, not quality. I uploaded the first draft of my novel, Bonus Baby, on November 29. It weighed in at 53,083 words. Nanowrimo teaches lots of lessons for first-timers. Here are some:

  • Plan ahead. Start with a well-developed plot that has the potential for numerous scenes and dramatic developments. Keep in mind the number of scenes it will take to reach 50,000 words. The average daily word count required is 1,667 words. If your scenes tend to run between 1,500 and 2,000 words, you will need to develop between 25 and 30 scenes to attain the magic number.
  • Be flexible. Since quantity is the goal, feel free to experiment. Write a scene from different points of view. If you want to go off on a tangent, do it. Deadlines force the writer to find creative solutions to plot problems. You may end up inventing a new subplot or a new character. That’s okay. Make mid-course adjustments. You don’t have to stop and think about it. For me, being flexible also meant finding a way to write when our state got slammed by a freak October snow storm that resulted in the loss of power for nine days. I wrote by hand. I took my laptop to Starbucks. I wrote in the morning, which I had never done.
  • Keep moving forward. This one is really important. You cannot afford to spend time working over the same scene or trying to come up with just the right word or phrase. Perfect is the enemy of the good. If a scene isn’t everything you want, you need to move on.
  • Get to the finish line. Complete your story, even if it’s only 20,000 words. That sense of accomplishment is worth the effort.
  • Reach out to other Nanowrimo’ers in your region. I met a lot of great people and learned a lot by attending writing sessions, participating in online forums, and it’s comforting to know you are not alone.
  • Remember at all times: it’s a first draft. It’s not a Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award winner. You can always go back to it later and fix the problems.

Above all, I found that Nanowrimo teaches discipline and good work habits. It’s easy to blow off your work-in-progress when you come to a roadblock or you just don’t feel like writing. Nanowrimo teaches you the daily writing habit. Although I’m a believer in daily word counts, I tend to write in creative bursts. I may not write for five days and then knock out 7,000 words on the weekend.

Would I do it again? Absolutely. Now I need to go somewhere quiet and conjure up a plot for next year’s contest.

Have you ever done National Novel Writing Month? How did you find your experience? What did you learn?

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