How Many Characters Are Too Many?

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How many main characters are too many?

In my book, The Six and the Crystals of Ialana, I have seven main characters. Even though the title reflects “six”, the seventh character did not have the same mission as the Six. However, this person played an important role in the progression of the story.

I hoped that readers would not be confused so I introduced the seven slowly, and not all at once. This would give readers the opportunity to get to know them first before the pacing of the story moved too fast for them to keep track. I realize our short term memory has its limitations.

When we write our story and begin to introduce characters, think of it as going to a party with 50-60 people attending, and you know no one there at all. Everybody at the party, except you, know all the other people well. Each person comes up to you and introduces themselves to you. How many names do you remember? Probably only a few. Maybe, by the end of the evening, you’d know several more, but definitely not all.

Think of your reader as that person who is at that party, and show some consideration towards them by not introducing everyone at the same time and expecting them to remember all the names right away. In fantasy writing, this can be especially tricky since we don’t use names like Bill, Mary or Bob, but rather more exotic and often made up names. This puts an added burden on our memory banks!

I also alluded to other characters near the beginning of the book to give a heads up to the reader who they may be encountering later as main players, but did not actually introduce them in person.

If a character plays little to no role in the progression of a story or plot, he or she (or it) must go. If you were the CEO of a company, and you noticed as you came into the office each day, an employee shuffling his or her feet out in the hallway, drinking endless cups of coffee, and interacting with no other employee in a meaningful way, your choice might be obvious. It is the same choice a writer must make–even if this loafing, useless character is much beloved to the writer. It might be a character you always wanted to write about, and you have come to love and know this person like a brother or sister, but they are contributing nothing to the story. If that is the case, find another story to put them in. Make them your main character and give them a role to play, a job to do. Perhaps this employee/character was not given a specific job or purpose. It was not their fault. We can’t blame them. It is your responsibility as a writer to find a job for this person and ensure they do it, even if a small but important one.

I will be writing more about my individual characters in my books in 2015. I will not give away any plot lines or use spoilers, so you will still feel free to read my books and enjoy the twists and turns in the stories. I would like to give my readers the opportunity to get to know my characters as well as I do, but it is not essential to read about them here since I feel the characters in my books do their job well enough. You will not be scratching your head, wondering who the heck “Blaidd” is, and what does he have to do with “Seryn”? You will know, just from reading the book. If you’d like to find out more about them, my blog is the place.

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Show vs. Tell

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Another way to write is called “Showing”, instead of “Telling”. In telling, the writer is over-involved with the story and is afraid the reader will not understand him or her if they don’t deliver every piece of information with all the force of a sledge hammer. Here is an example of “telling”:

Lyari (our elf) knew he had to fight the dragon. He was afraid, but he didn’t want to show it, so he covered his fear with a smile of confidence so that his friend, Elora, would not know how afraid he really was, even though he thought she already knew.

Now, if you as a reader find those two sentences uninspiring, I wouldn’t blame you. They are. Instead, one could write it this way (showing):

“You don’t have to fight Nilanth, Lyari,” Elora looked at him, her eyes soft. “No one would blame you if you turn down the challenge.”

Lyari smiled. “I know I don’t have to fight him. But I must. I can’t allow him to kill anyone else like he did . . .” He stopped, his voice choking. “Anyway, do you think I’m a coward?”

“No, no—of course not.”

“Well it sounds like you think I’m frightened of him.” He stood up but his legs felt shaky so he sat down again. “I’m ready for him.”

What images came up in your mind as you read the above exchange? Did it feel more real to you than the one before? In the above conversation the reader clearly understands that Lyari feels fear and uncertainty. Elora sees it too and she is the one who gives him an “out”, but one that his pride will not allow him to accept. There is more depth to this exchange than in merely stating the obvious.

A reader does not wish the writer to insert their presence too much, if at all, into a story, since it takes the reader out of the story, out of the moment. The writer is merely a witness to the situation or event: the recorder of what he or she sees/hears in their head. The job of the characters are to drive the story, and they do not need the help of the author except to write down what is occurring as it happens. If the writer needs more explanation, it can always be done by the POV character as a thought in their head, or dialogue with another character.

In my next blog I will discuss the use of description. How necessary is it in a story? And how much?

Point of View for the Young Writer

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There are many aspects to how you write your book, but an important one is “point of view”, or POV.

Before you begin the actual writing, it is a good idea to decide who is telling the story. The most common, and most popular in fiction, is written in the third person, i.e. “Lyari picked up his sword and moved slowly towards the dragon. He wondered if his months of training had really prepared him for this encounter.” The writer, through Lyari, is the one telling the story, and the writer is omnipresent or omniscient; in other words, the writer can see from not only Lyari’s POV, but also everyone else’s point of view what is happening. The writer will use the pronouns “he”, “she”, “him”, “her”, “it” throughout the book. This form of writing will give the most leeway in switching from character to character since the writer can see everything from his or her own perspective, but the characters will not necessarily see everything as the writer does.

If Lyari is speaking in one chapter, I can only write about what he is seeing and experiencing in that chapter. If I need to see and experience something from the dragon’s POV, then I need to switch in the next chapter, making it clear that I am now looking through dragon eyes at the approaching Lyari. Lyari will not be privy to the dragon’s thoughts or feelings, unless he is also telepathic, which, in fantasy, is a possibility. But you need to make it clear from the outset that Lyari is telepathic or has ESP. Maybe the dragon doesn’t know this and is surprised when Lyari counters his moves!

Writing in first person, “I”, “we”, “my”, “our”, etc. is used mainly in autobiographies or books in diary form, but can be used in an exclusive POV for almost any kind of book. Many are put off by this so be wary before using first person in a general way. It can be tricky! If your dragon needs to express his viewpoint then you will need your “I” character, and in the above case it will be Lyari, to be present, otherwise it will not work.

It is better to be consistent in your pick of POV. Do not make the mistake of using first person POV in one sentence, then suddenly switching to the dragon’s POV in the same breath. If you need to switch, then I would use the first person POV for both Lyari and the dragon, but in separate chapters or segments, if possible. This can be confusing to a reader, so I prefer to use third person POV throughout, or first person POV throughout.

Remember that the person or character whose eyes you are looking through to tell the story is also the character to whom the reader will relate most to. Consistency is the key. Even if you are using an omnipresent POV in third person, which I do in my books, I telegraph switches from character to character in different segments. For example, if I was writing a book about Lyari the elf, I would make it clear that it is Lyari that is speaking, and whose thoughts I can hear, whose eyes I (and the reader) are looking through. Then, if I want to switch to the dragon’s POV, I will be clear that it is now the dragon whose eyes I am looking through, and whose thoughts and feelings I can determine. This method gives the writer the most leeway so there are no unpleasant surprises or confusion for the reader.

It is fine to switch back and forth with POV, but be careful in doing this. Be consistent, watch for sudden changes of POV. Are they going to confuse the reader? If so, you may want to reconsider or make it abundantly clear who is telling the story. I think of myself as the secretary, taking down dictation from many different characters who all want to tell their story and be heard. I remember to keep them separated as much as possible, and ensure the reader knows exactly whose point of view I am now writing about.

Goals, Building Tension, Setting your Pace

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Now that you’ve assembled a rough outline, have your cast of main characters, and are familiar with your setting or world, what next?

Some questions to ask yourself:

  • What is my hero/heroine’s goal? This is an important step. Do not leave it up to chance. For e.g. your Elf hero, Lyari may have as his goal to slay the antagonist (bad guy or creature) Nilanth the Insane, a dragon bent on destruction of all that Lyari holds dear.
  • What are Lyari’s strengths? You may already have determined this, but if not, now is the time. For e.g. Lyari may be a master swordsman, have great courage, know a few magic tricks, and so on.
  • What are Lyari’s weaknesses? Yes, even the hero must have a weakness or two. If he didn’t, he’d seem rather unbelievable as a character. Perhaps his weakness is his desire to protect his sidekick and friend, Elora; a human girl who, although as skilled as he is with a sword, does not have magical skills. Another weakness, and one that can be played up may be that Lyari has no experience at all in slaying dragons, and since Nilanth killed his family or mentor a long time ago, he is overly emotional when it comes to the prospect of killing the dragon, and it affects both his magical skills and swordplay in a negative way. He may also have a fear of fire due to repressed memories of the dragon killing his family when he was a baby.

Now you have some obstacles that will make the slaying of the dragon much harder to do than merely finding the dragon and slaying it immediately. You may have even more obstacles that will get in the way of the hero’s goal. These are things that must be resolved before the end of the book. If the hero needs to conquer his fear of fire, for e.g. before he can actually slay the dragon, then he must do so before the end of the book, but not necessarily too near the beginning. You can build tension with these weaknesses, sprinkling them throughout the story, but also playing up his considerable skills at the same time.

Use time as an ally in building tension. Lyari only has a limited time to slay the dragon, learn new skills, and conquer his own fears. Will he make it? The reader should be asking themselves that question as they read. Lyari won’t be able to stop and eat breakfast first before slaying the dragon. Time is of the essence. Split second decisions and actions can turn the plot at a pace to satisfy even the most demanding reader. There may be times when Lyari and Elora can sit down and eat a meal in relative peace, but make sure there aren’t too many of these times so that those that you do include will be more appreciated.

Pacing is an important aspect of writing. Once you have decided what the goals are (there may be more than one) and what the challenges are, you will develop a feel for where to include them. Of course, you do not want them all in the first chapter; you can distribute them throughout the book. It becomes instinctive after a while. Reread what you have written constantly and you will see where the pacing lags, or where there is just too much going on for one scene.

Good luck!

Young Writers: Where to Begin?

Yesterday I wrote on what inspires me to write. Today, I want to share my thoughts about what happens after we have decided to write a book. What is the process? Where do we begin?

When I first began to write, I had no real plan in mind and would begin my writing with “Chapter 1” and go on from there. It’s a miracle I turned out anything at all. Some of it stayed on Chapter 1 and got filed under “incomplete”. It meant I had a vague idea that I wanted to write about something: ideas that bounced noisily around in my head like arcade machine pin balls, but with no clear trajectory or end in mind.

It felt like I was trying to build a house by putting the roof up first, instead of laying the foundations. After many false starts and failures, I realized I was coming at it from the wrong end–the beginning–instead of knowing where it was going. It doesn’t mean one can’t start a book this way; sometimes it might work and the plot or characters develop as we write, but if you don’t enjoy a hit and miss affair, then here are some ideas how to begin:

  • Make a list of characters you would like to see in the story. Put as much detail as you can down about them; how do they look? What is each one’s individual personality? You don’t need all the characters at this stage, but maybe a few main ones.
  • Build your world. What country is this? What time period? Make it as real as possible, even if it’s a made up country like mine (Ialana). If it’s a made up country or world, Who are the inhabitants of this place and what are their customs? Do they use money, and what is it? Draw a map, if possible, so you remember all the names of the different areas or towns. How is it divided politically? No detail is too small to include in your world building stage. If it’s a real country, decide where your character will live or where they will travel, before writing.
  • Do your research. If you are writing about a different time period, learn as much as you can about this time in history. How did the people dress? What weapons did they use? It is another world building as above, but only with a real period in history.
  • Now that you are familiar with your characters and setting, many more ideas about the plot may occur to you. Write them all down. Make a list of how you think the plot or story might progress. It doesn’t have to progress exactly as you wrote it in your list; these would only be suggestions. Things may change. I know my characters often have a mind of their own, and once I start writing, they suggest another plot line or thread and the whole thing veers off in a different direction. If the story is better with this direction, then go for it!
  • Now that you have a working outline, you can start filling in the detail. This is the fun part. The characters begin to take shape and come alive. They become real to you and you can hear them in your head as you write. You see their surroundings, because you’ve already created it. There is little hesitation as you write because the characters and their world are now as familiar to you as your own back yard. You are writing!

Once you have conquered the beginning stages of writing a book, you are well on your way and everything else is just plot tweaking and adding detail. You have built the foundations, and if your foundations are strong, your book will be strong too. Good luck, and contact me below if you have any questions!

Fantasy Readers and Young Writers

Did you grow up, like me, reading Tolkien or C.S. Lewis? When I came to the end of these books, I felt as if I wanted to go back and start at the beginning, again. I never wanted them to be over and wished these writers had written more than they already did.

I always knew I wanted to be a writer too, and wrote my first novel about Africa that was inspired by my mother’s work on a mission, but deep down I knew there was something else I had to write. Something that reflected my love of fantasy and science fiction. A far cry from Africa, but then Africa is a continent that could have been lifted straight from Middle Earth, so maybe it was not so strange I felt drawn to this genre.

Something I tell all young and upcoming authors: write what you enjoy reading. Write what you love. If you feel drawn to a particular genre or author, discover what it is about the book or the writing that pulls you in. I gave this advice to myself and I have never looked back. I am living my dream of writing what I love the most. It took me a long time to discover that dream and I hope it doesn’t take you that long.

It’s not about making money, becoming famous–although to be honest, I have not had those experiences yet–but I would do it anyway because it’s what I love. I still read new and established fantasy authors, hoping to find some that will satisfy my craving for more of what I found fascinating as a child. I have found some, so there are always other “Tolkiens” out there. Keep looking!