Tag Archives: Harry Potter

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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Book Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)

J.K. Rowling’s murder mystery novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, written under the name Robert Galbraith, caused a major stir when it was revealed that the Harry Potter series author penned this work. Stories followed about the difficulties of getting a publisher interested in the manuscript and the sluggish sales of the book until the identity of its celebrated author was made public.

All of this publicity obscured the fact that Rowling had written a first class mystery novel, featuring a larger than life protagonist in the form of down and out private investigator Cormoran Strike. While the Potter series is about good and evil, the cruelties of adolescence and the power of love to overcome bigotry and intolerance, The Cuckoo’s Calling can best be described as an indictment of the lifestyles of the rich and famous and the media culture that surrounds them.

This story has it all: celebrity models, a chic fashion designer, a rapper with a rap sheet, a troubled rock musician, an egocentric movie producer and various hangers on and paparazzi. Rowling brilliantly sprinkles red herrings throughout the narrative as each of these characters seems to have an angle and a scheme going. Amid the colorful cast of the glitterati, the most striking character is Strike.

A military veteran who lost part of his leg in Afghanistan, Strike is a bear of a man. How is this for a physical description: Strike has “the high bulging forehead, broad nose and thick brows of a young Beethoven who had just taken to boxing.” When we meet Strike, he has just dumped his longtime girlfriend, Charlotte, he has no clients, he is near bankruptcy and he is forced to sleep in a camp bed in his dingy office. He is doomed, until two saviors show up in his office on the same morning. The first is Robin Ellacott, a young temp worker walking on a cloud since her boyfriend has just proposed to her. Robin is wise beyond her years and yearns for a meaningful job. The second is John Bristow, scion of a wealthy family who is convinced the death of his adopted sister, superstar model Lulu Landry, was a murder. The case was covered extensively by the media. Police believed Lulu jumped out of a window of her luxury condo to her death on a frigid London night. Bristow hires a reluctant Strike to investigate.

Strike methodically disassembles and reassembles the sequence of events, with each new revelation casting light on Lulu’s troubled life and the people in her circle of friends. It all leads to a shocking conclusion.

Rowling skewers many of the same targets she went after in the Potter series: the rich and powerful, gossip obsessed media, rigid bureaucrats, and self indulgent pop culture stars. In Strike and his young assistant, Ellacott, she has created an appealing chemistry, not sexual but based on mutual need and respect. I cannot wait to read the next installment.

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Reboot Your Novel

You might find yourself with this dilemma: you are on your third or fourth draft of your novel and it’s not working. Rapidly losing enthusiasm for the work-in-progress, you search your brain to figure out what is wrong. You don’t want to throw away months or years of effort, but you cannot figure out what is wrong. As the IT folks like to say, “When in doubt, reboot.”

How do you reboot a novel? There’s no on/off switch on a manuscript, but you can turn off the writer switch and shift to the reader switch. Read the manuscript straight through without any distractions. Do it in one pass if time permits. Take precise notes on what is wrong with the manuscript. During this self-assessment stage, you must be brutally candid about the flaws in your work.

In my experience with my work here are some of the flaws I’ve identified:

• Lack of high-impact resolution to the story.
• Word count that is too long (125,000-plus) or too short (50,000).
• Lack of cohesion in the story; too many detours or low-impact scenes.
• Weak character development.

These types of flaws can be fixed. What is more difficult to fix is the problem of bad story structure. Like a house, if a story is structurally unsound it cannot stand.

Once you have finished a frank assessment of your story, ask yourself this question: what is this story really about? We’re not talking about the theme here, but what is the essence of the story. Is Harry Potter a story about a powerful wizard or is it about an adolescent boy’s struggles growing up in a world where he is different and must learn to use his assets to make sure good triumphs over evil? When you figure out what your story is about, writing it and filling in the blanks will become easier.

Ask yourself these questions:

• How can I make the story concept (what the story is about) pay off?
• What are the main character’s external and internal conflicts and how can I best maximize them?
• What are the weakest aspects or scenes of the story? Can they be improved or should they be deleted?
• Which characters don’t work? Are they worth saving?

Rebooting a novel is hard work. It could entail tearing the story apart and piecing it back together again. You may decide it’s not worth the effort. If you decide to go for it, go for it and reboot your novel.

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Beware the Dreaded MacGuffin

If you are an avid consumer of movies or books, you’ve heard the term “MacGuffin.” A MacGuffin is a commonly-used plot device in films and literature. A MacGuffin is simply something that the protagonist pursues. It could be an object or a person or something more abstract.

Here’s a good working definition from Wikipedia:

In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation as to why it is considered so important. The specific nature of a MacGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot. The most common type of MacGuffin is an object, place or person. However, a MacGuffin can sometimes take a more abstract form, such as money, victory, glory, survival, power, love, or even something that is entirely unexplained, as long as it strongly motivates key characters within the structure of the plot.

Here’s another definition from the website, TVTropes:

MacGuffin (a.k.a. McGuffin or maguffin) is a term for a motivating element in a story that is used to drive the plot. It actually serves no further purpose. It won’t pop up again later, it won’t explain the ending, it won’t actually do anything except possibly distract you while you try to figure out its significance. In some cases, it won’t even be shown. It is usually a mysterious package/artifact/superweapon that everyone in the story is chasing.

The term apparently originated in 1939 with Alfred Hitchcock, though some have traced its origins to Rudyard Kipling. One of Hitchckock’s screenwriters, Angus McPhail, used the term, relating an old Scottish tale:

A man is riding on a train when a second gentleman gets on and sits down across from him. The first man notices the second is holding an oddly shaped package.

“What is that?” the first man asks.

“A MacGuffin, a tool used to hunt lions in the Scottish highlands.”

“But there are no lions in the Scottish highlands,” says the first man.

“Well then,” says the other, “That’s no MacGuffin”.

Here is a further explanation from TVTropes:

To determine if a thing is a MacGuffin, check to see if it is interchangeable. For example, in a caper story the MacGuffin could be either the Mona Lisa or the Hope diamond, it makes no difference which. The rest of the story (i.e. it being stolen) would be exactly the same. It doesn’t matter which it is, it is only necessary for the characters to want it.

Therein lies the problem with the MacGuffin. Its interchangeability means it doesn’t matter what the writer chooses as the MacGuffin. In theory, I try to avoid using MacGuffins, but, in practice, it’s nearly impossible. A fundamental principle in fiction writing is to put challenges before the main character. There are only so many original ways to devise challenges. The Harry Potter series, which I loved, is loaded with MacGuffins. The same goes for the Steig Larssen series. Yet, in both cases, the authors made them work again and again.

Another form of a MacGuffin is the “plot coupon,” credited to film critic Nick Lowe (not the rock star). A plot coupon is something, or a series of things, the main character needs to obtain to cash in later. As is the case with the MacGuffin, the thing itself is not significant, but the character must have it. The seven horcruxes in Harry Potter are good examples of plot coupons.

So what are the guidelines when it comes to MacGuffins and plot coupons? I couldn’t find any in my limited research, but here are a few ideas. The MacGuffin must be:

• Appropriate to the genre. In science fiction, it is usually something mystical and powerful. In a romance, it might be a thing one of the love interests needs to obtain before a relationship can happen.
• Hard to obtain. If the hero comes up with the key to the treasure chest in the first act, that hissing sound is the tension leaving your story.
• Imaginative and original. Powerful weapons and secret formulas make good MacGuffins, but they are old and stale tricks. One of the things I enjoyed most about the Harry Potter series was JK Rowling’s use of inventive and imaginative MacGuffins. This is easier when the author is building a world, but authors of stories grounded in reality must challenge themselves to come up with original MacGuffins.
• Remember, the MacGuffin is not significant to the story. It is a device—an obstacle put in the way or a mystery to be solved.

My original intent here was to write a post cautioning writers against using MacGuffins. After a lot of thought, I came to the conclusion that MacGuffins are often necessary to create or sustain tension, but should be carefully considered.

What’s your opinion on MacGuffins? How do you use them in your stories?

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What’s in a Name? Choose Character Names Carefully

Elmore Leonard once told a story about the difficulty he was having with one of his characters. He just couldn’t get the character right and it frustrated him. Then he realized what the problem was. The character had the wrong name. He thought hard about it and renamed the character and then the character came alive for him.

Character names matter and writers should consider carefully the names they give to their characters. A character’s name evokes an image in the mind of the reader. A character named Bruiser gives the reader a different picture than one named Bartholomew.  A character’s name must be consistent with her background and the time period in which the story takes place.

Here are some tips in coming up with strong character names:

  • Make it easy to pronounce. A character named Zbsyskrksi will stop the reader dead every time.
  • Avoid generic names. A character called Jack Jones is not memorable.
  • Choose a name that is appropriate to the occupation of persona of the character. Think Don “Vito” Corleone. A writer wouldn’t call a Mafia don Jacques LaFleur.
  • Select a name that was popular in the era in which the story takes place. Martha may have been a popular name a century ago, but it’s considered an old person’s name today.
  • Make sure the name aligns with the character’s looks and appearance. A fashion model named Crystal or Star works, but Mabel doesn’t cut it.
  • Avoid character’s with similar sounding names (example: Joel and Noel). It’s too confusing for the reader.

The most important aspect of a character’s name is that it must be memorable. Character names must evoke the intended emotional response. Scarlett O’Hara is strong-willed, petulant and manipulative. Harry Potter is an every-man name for an ordinary child with extraordinary powers. Severus Snape is an even better name, reflecting a complex man torn by conflicting emotions.

When it came to naming my main character in my novel, Small Change, I wanted an ethnic, blue-collar name. I chose John Sykowski. The family with whom they became intertwined was headed by a second-generation minister. I was going for an old-line English name. I selected Crandale. Two of my critics hated the name and urged me to change it. I thought carefully about doing that, but it felt right to me so I stuck with it. The author should listen to well-intentioned advice, but must trust her instincts.

Here are more resources on character names:

http://www.wow-womenonwriting.com/25-How2-CharacterNames.html

http://www.babynames.com/character-names.php

http://www.charlottedillon.com/characters.html

http://www.wikihow.com/Name-Your-Fictional-Character

http://suite101.com/article/naming-fictional-characters-a48248

How do you come up with character names?

 

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Changing My Work Space

The place where a writer chooses to write is crucial to success. An ideal work space for writing must have four things. It must be free of distraction, quiet, comfortable, and isolated.

I recently changed my work space. My previous work space was located in our finished basement on the other side of the family room. It was fairly isolated, but there was no wall between the family room and the place where I wrote. This never posed a huge problem. I usually selected a time to write when nobody was in the family room.

That has become more difficult, so I recently moved to a separate room in the house and set up my laptop there. It affords more seclusion and I can write whenever I want.

Where you write is a matter of personal taste and preference. JK Rowling famously wrote much of the early Harry Potter series in a crowded café because the only way she managed to get her young daughter to sleep was by going outside of her flat. She claimed the story that made the rounds that she wrote there because she lived in an unheated flat was bogus.

Stephen King, in his craft book, On Writing, discussed the writing room. “Your writing room doesn’t have to sport a Playboy Philosophy décor, and you don’t need an Early American rolltop in which to house your writing implements,” King wrote.

“The space can be humble (probably should be, as I think I have already suggested), and it needs only one thing: a door which you are willing to shut. The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business, you have made a serious commitment to write and intend to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.”

King maintained there should be no telephone, TV, videogames, or other distractions in your writing room, though he does admit he works to loud music—hard rock like AC/DC, Guns ‘n Roses and Metallica, to name a few of his favorites.

Since the writer is creating her own world, King likens it to creative sleep. “Like your bedroom, your writing room should be private, a place where you go to dream…In both writing and sleeping, we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives.”

I like to think of it as an intense concentration. When I sit down to write, I block out everything else. It takes a few minutes for me to get into the story. My mind has to be totally immersed in it. I always read over the last few pages of what I wrote in my previous session. That helps me to get into the right frame of mind. It’s difficult for people who don’t write fiction to understand the energy that goes into shifting into that mood of complete focus on your work. It’s not just a switch one can turn on and off. I realize I’ve digressed here but a writing space that is quiet and free of distraction is vital to the process of getting into the mood that King calls “creative sleep.”

What does your work space look like? Can you work with outside noise around you?

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Mega-popular Series: What Are the Secrets?

I just finished reading The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins and it got me thinking. This was one of three wildly popular series, a group that also includes the Harry Potter books and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. The Harry Potter books are the best-selling series in history and the Millennium and Hunger Games trilogies have sold tens of millions each.

Writers dream of writing a series like these and publishers crave them, but what made these books in particular succeed on such a large scale when other series have enjoyed just modest success? Was it the characters? The setting? The story? It was all of these factors and more. Here are my thoughts on why these three series achieved such staggering success:

Powerful premises. A young boy who is treated cruelly by his step-parents discovers one day he is a wizard—and not just any wizard, but The Chosen One. A young girl who is abused as a child ends up in a psychiatric hospital, left to suffer more abuse, until one day a guardian ad litem takes up her case. Another teen-age girl volunteers for the hunger games, facing almost certain death, to spare her younger sister the same fate. How could one not want to delve into such books?

Main characters who rise above bleak, harrowing circumstances and overcome incredible odds. Harry Potter must face the most powerful evil wizard, Lord Voldemort. Katniss Everdeen must defeat 23 rivals, including a possible lover. Mikael Blomqvist and Lisbeth Salander (never could figure out which one was the main character) must surmount destroyed reputations and organized crime syndicates backed by a secret state police.

Highly imaginative and detailed settings. Hogwarts is described in wonderful, minute detail, a beautiful and scary place. There is nothing beautiful about the nation of Panem in the Hunger Games. Sweden is a real place, but the land described by Larsson doesn’t fit the tired stereotypes of a place featuring gorgeous blonde women, and people buying Ikea furniture and driving Volvos.

Complex and intriguing stories with ever-changing plot lines and growing stakes. Each series features stakes that are (paraphrasing the words of Donald Maass from his book, Writing the Breakout Novel) both personal and public. Public stakes impact large groups of people, nations or the entire world. Personal stakes impact one or more characters, but they are profound enough that the reader cares deeply what happens to the character.

Empathy. All three authors create a sense of empathy in their characters. Didn’t you feel like you knew Harry, Ron and Hermione intimately by the end of the Harry Potter series? Readers badly wanted to see Lisbeth and Katniss survive and thrive.

Themes that matter. Overcoming abuse and neglect, starvation, exploitation of women, violence against women—these three series cover important themes. These authors dealt with big subjects within the context of page-turning stories.

Extraordinarily gifted authors. J.K. Rowling is a story-teller almost without peer. Larsson was a renowned journalist in Sweden who managed to write three novels while working fulltime for a cutting-edge magazine and Collins was an established author even before she wrote her series.

These three authors have given the rest of us a dream to which to aspire. It’s not about the riches their books have generated. It’s about the work itself. Its popularity speaks for itself.

Why do you think these series have succeeded on such a large scale?

 

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