Tag Archives: JK Rowling

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?

Advertisements

9 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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?

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Why Introverts Make Good Writers

Writing is a lonely calling. Solitude and reflection are integral parts of the writing process. Writers need to spend a lot of time alone. Though I could not locate any scientific data to back this theory, I believe most writers would call themselves introverts.

In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, author and former corporate lawyer Susan Cain promotes the virtues of introverts in a world that seems to favor the qualities of extroverts. “The business world and much of American culture is skewed toward extroverts,” Cain said at a recent conference. Introverts are widely misunderstood. Seen as lesser contributors and even as anti-social by some, introverts “simply process knowledge and engage with their surroundings in a different, quieter context.”

While extroverts draw energy from being around other people, “introverts feel their most alive, their most engaged, and their deepest sense of equilibrium when they are in environments that are less stimulating,” Cain said. These periods of solitude allow introverts to be at their most creative, she said, citing among other examples, the best-selling author JK Rowling.

Author John Green, who has penned a number of acclaimed Young Adult novels, puts it this way: “Writing is something you do alone. It’s a profession for introverts who want to tell you a story, but don’t want to make eye contact while doing it.”

Here are some of the qualities of introverts and how these are beneficial to the writing process:

• Listening. Introverts are generally good listeners. They prefer listening to talking. While one would think extroverts can mine more rich material for their stories because they are out in the world more, introverts in social situations do a lot more watching and listening. I like to sit in a coffee shop and watch people, listen for snatches of conversation that I can use or adapt in a story.
• Watching. Introverts are keenly aware of their surroundings. They may not feel comfortable going up to a stranger and starting a conversation, but they can spot clues from a person’s body language or choice of clothing. I’m not suggesting extroverts don’t have this trait, but I believe its more acute in introverts.
• Reflection. As Cain said, introverts have a deep need to process knowledge, rather than to react quickly or make snap judgments. It’s this quality that is one of the most essential to any successful writer. Giving meaning and context to a set of facts and emotions is crucial to the storytelling process.
• Solitude. Introverts crave periods of solitude. They are not at all uncomfortable about being alone for long periods of time. This “alone time” is like gold to a writer. Achieving 1,000 words per day requires several consecutive hours behind a closed door or hunkered down in a library or a café with your nose in your laptop. Extroverts get jumpy when they have to spend that much time alone. Introverts thrive on it.

What about you? Are you an introvert? If so, has it helped or hindered your writing process?

33 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Genre-Bending: What are the Rules?

I recently enjoyed a concert by the Spampinato Brothers, an ensemble that featured Joey Spampinato, bass guitarist and a founding member of the fabulous eclectic band NRBQ. If you’ve never heard the music of NRBQ you’re missing something special. If you didn’t get a chance to see the line-up of the band that featured Spampinato on bass, Al Anderson on lead guitar, Terry Adams on keyboards and Tom Ardolino on drums, you really missed something special.

NRBQ, which is the acronym for the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet, has drawn the attention of prominent fans, including Bonnie Raitt, Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello and Keith Richards, who invited Spampinato to play bass guitar on one of his solo projects. Bonnie Raitt has reportedly called NRBQ the best live band she’s ever seen.

What does all this have to do with fiction writing? Music critics have described NRBQ is a genre-bending band, a gifted ensemble that could move effortlessly from rockabilly to jazz to Beach Boys-style pop, to R&B and even country music. Fiction writing gurus warn aspiring authors to stick to one genre. There are solid reasons for this advice. Your genre is your brand. When you think about JK Rowling, Young Adult/fantasy comes to mind. Robert B. Parker? Crime stories. John Grisham? Legal thrillers. You get the picture.

This subject is on my mind lately because my latest project is a radical departure from the genre in which I normally write. My genre is family sagas. That’s what I like to read (though I read widely from a number of genres) and that’s where my comfort zone is as a writer. My self-published novel, Small Change, is the story of two families in the Midwest who become intertwined after meeting each summer at a lake resort in Wisconsin. My three unfinished drafts are likewise family sagas, though one includes a murder-mystery.

Earlier this year, the urge hit me to do something totally outside my genre. I wanted to leave what was familiar and try something totally different. At the time I had been working on a political novella that I eventually abandoned. However, the main character stayed with me. I just had to develop him. The original story was the wrong vehicle, but there was a minor scene in it that had the potential to take this character in a new direction. So I pursued it.

That wasn’t the only leap outside the comfort zone. My good friend, Jamie Beckett, another self-published author, told me he had embarked on a serialized science fiction story consisting of multiple parts that he was going to release, one at a time, on Amazon.com. Another writing colleague was doing the same thing. I was intrigued, especially since I wasn’t sure my new project had the potential as a full-blown novel. So I approached it as a trilogy: three short stories, the succeeding one picking up where the last one left off.

That mature voice in the back of my mind keeps telling me, “This is a bad idea. Stick to what you know.” I usually listen to that voice, but my heart is telling me to plunge forward. I can’t think of a good reason why not. What’s the risk? If I don’t like it, I don’t have to publish it. If I publish it and it takes off, it makes me a much more versatile writer.

Though the conventional wisdom is to stick to a single genre, there are exceptions. Stephen King is one shining example of an author who has branched out. King’s stock-in-trade was horror, but he has expanded his horizons into science fiction and even historical speculative work with his 2011 novel, 11/22/63 about a time traveler who tries to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Of course, King is a huge name. He can afford to do genre-hopping. It’s a much riskier strategy for an unknown author looking to break into publishing. I’ve never advised genre-jumping, but I do believe a writer must follow what’s in his heart. A writer must write about that which stirs him. A writer must follow his passion and if that means writing in a different genre, so what? But a writer must also have the judgment to evaluate his work in other genres. Is it as strong as the work in the writer’s best genre? If so, go with it. If not, every writing experience is a growth opportunity.

What about you? Have you stuck to a single genre? Did you ever have the urge to write outside your genre?

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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?

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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?

 

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized