Wednesday, May 29, 2013

How I Manage Large Casts of Characters

One of the most consistent pieces of praise I've received for the Eli books over their run is for my adept handling of a very large cast of characters. This might seem like an odd detail to single out, but hearing people say it still makes me happier than anything, because I worked SO FREAKING HARD on it.

To give you an example of what I'm talking about, my 4th Eli Monpress book, The Spirit War had 33 named characters (and spirits) the reader had to remember for the plot to make sense. Thirty freaking three! That's a stupid amount of people! And keep in mind, all these characters also had their own little plots spinning and intrigues and motivations that the reader was also expected to keep straight. That's a lot of brainpower for something that's supposed to be escape reading (especially since this book was coming out over a year after the third one).

When I sat down to write Spirit War, it didn't take long for me to realize I was looking down the barrel of a shotgun of my own making. This book could so easily have been a disaster, and no one knew that better than I did. So, since I couldn't cut characters or plot points I'd played up in previous books, my only way out was to figure out a way to keep my reader on top of this army I called a cast without ever letting them feel lost or overwhelmed by the crowd. To achieve this, I pulled out every trick I could think of (and invented ones I couldn't) to make sure my reader always knew who was who and what was up in any scene without resorting to telling. It wasn't easy, but in the end I pulled it off with flying colors. I also learned an enormous amount about the art of handling characters in a large world setting, and sense we're all about sharing the knowledge here at Casa de Aaron, I decided it was high time I made a blog post about what I learned.

Below, you'll find a list of the tricks and methods I worked out to make sure my readers remember who's important in my novel without making them feel like they're having to memorize a list. The key here is subtly and respect for both your book and your reader. I use all of these methods in every one of my own novels post Spirit War, and I hope you find them as helpful as I have. 

Ready? Here we go! 

0) Write Interesting Characters
I wanted to get this out of the way right off the bat. This is a post about making sure your reader remembers your characters, including all the minor ones, all the way through the novel, but the hands down easiest way to achieve this is to have a cast worth remembering. I am a huge fan of tricks of the trade, but if your people are boring, flat, tensionless, uninteresting, unmotivated, empty dolls, no amount of fancy handling is going to make them memorable. 

Readers want cool, flawed, interesting people of all kinds--people to hate, people to hang out with, people to fall in love with, people to admire, people who make them laugh. Novelists who can routinely meet these demands are invariably successful. So, before you do anything else, make sure your people are the sort of characters who deserve to be in novels. Otherwise, none of the following is really going to help. 

That settled? Okay, let's move on to the real post.

1) It's Not About Names
Are you bad at remembering names? I am. In my experience, most people in the world are bad with names to some extent, yet we can remember other, seemingly far less important details just fine--what someone was wearing, how a stranger's hair looks, if a store clerk was funny, etc.

Our brains passively remember an enormous range of bits and tidbits about the world around us, and a good writer can harness this to their advantage. When I introduce a character I want my reader to remember, especially a non-major character who will only appear in a few scenes that I don't want to waste time developing, I always make sure to introduce them with a telling detail along with their name. Maybe they have a scar or a weird hairstyle, or maybe their voice is oddly high. Anything memorable will do. 

Now, I don't harp on the detail, but I always mention it at least twice, because this detail has now become a label. Later, when I need the character to come back and do their job in the plot, I use this label in addition to their name to help jog the reader's memory. They might not remember Hans the Lumberjack, but they probably do remember that dude with the huge beard from back at the start of the book. This one recollection triggers others as the scene progresses, allowing you to deftly weave secondary, or even tertiary characters in and out of your narrative without having to resort to clunky "oh, remember Hans? He helped us back in..." type dialogue. Or, even worse, a character list! This might be personal bias, but nothing says "this is going to be a lame ass book" to me like finding a Dramatis Personae list at the front. It's like the author knew you wouldn't care about their characters enough to remember everyone, so they just caved and gave you a cheat sheet at the start.

Ahem, anyway, the point I'm trying to make here is that names are not how we remember people. Names are, in fact, your least helpful tool to make readers remember whom you're talking about. Readers are busy and impatient, which means if you want them to do work, like remembering someone, you need to make it easy. Give them something to grab on to, a label their brain can slap on and forget about until it needs that person again, and they'll generally play along.

For example, my character Slorn from the Eli Monpress series had a bear's head. Like, he was human from the neck down, but his head was that of a black bear. I reinforced this detail by calling him "the bear headed man" in my references to him within the text. His bear head ended up being very important for the larger meta plot, but let me tell you, NO ONE forgot who Slorn was (even though he made only brief appearances in the first few novels), and that was not by accident.

2) Give Them a (Social) Reason to Care
I'll put the obligatory "make sure your character actually needs to be in the story" line here, but come on. We all know that if a character doesn't serve the story, they need to go. Don't fill your book with meaningless garbage is, like, lesson 1 of writing. So we're just going to assume that all the people in your book need to be there for reasons you can easily explain (and if you can't explain exactly why a character needs to be in your book, see the previous sentence) and move on to ways to make sure your reader understands this as well.

So, as with every part of a novel, characters, even little ones, need to have purpose if they're going to earn their page time. But while it may serve you as the writer to have random Character A return at the climax to help the seemingly doomed heroes at a dramatically appropriate time, if you don't play up Character A's importance and give the reader a reason to think "hey, Character A is probably going to be important, I should keep them in mind" early on, then your ending is going to look slapdash at best. 

But how do you play up a minor but plot vital character without putting the novel equivalent of a giant, blinking "THIS GUY IS IMPORTANT LATER" arrow over his head and giving the whole game away? Simple, you just have to make them important in other ways that red herring the reader away from the character's real purpose as plot device. My favorite way to do this is to harness the universal human need to gossip.

Humans are social creatures. We always want to know about relationships, especially juicy, scandalous ones. Using this  nosy fascination is a very easy way to tempt readers into latching on to a character you're either not willing to, or don't have time to, develop at the moment. 

For example, in my Eli novels, I have a scene were two vital but (at the time) relatively minor characters hint through a bit of side dialogue that they are actually secretly the parents of my main character. GASP! This detail, less than 15 words all together, made a huge impact on my readership and elevated an otherwise minor sub-villain to major character status. The sudden elevation meant I was able to use her as the key character in a scene in the next book, turning an otherwise dull plot conversation between minor characters into a tense interchange between power players, which was a definite improvement. (More on key characters in a moment).

Harnessing our natural human need to be all up in other people's business is one of the most powerful ways to get your readers interested and invested in your characters, major or minor. The range of what you can use to hook people in is enormous: romantic entanglements, potential romantic entanglements, old scandals, secrets, feuds, all that reality TV stuff. There's a reason people watch those shows religiously, it's because they push our social buttons, and we as authors can use that same addictive power to make even our minor characters instantly rank as important in a reader's mind without being obvious about it, killing tension with explanation, or wasting words better spent on plot.

J. K. Rowling did an amazing job of this with Harry Potter. Think about how many HP characters you can name. I'll bet you dollars to donuts it's more than the main cast, probably a lot more. This is because J. K. Rowling is a freaking master of making us care about her secondary characters by showing us their places in the enormous social web she wove around her wizarding world. Because of this, when it came time to march out the armies of good and evil for the final battle, an enormous multi-character undertaking that could very well have been a train wreck of names and hex flinging, it all worked out, because Rowling made us care about all those minor characters well in advance, and so we as readers remembered every single one when the time came for them to do their job in (or die for) the plot. 

And this is why making your reader care about the characters is so important. If they care enough to remember who's who, then all you have to do is be clear about who and where everyone is at any given point and the reader will take care of the rest on their own, leaving you free to focus on plot.

3) Single File Introduction and Key Characters
Last year, I wrote a blog post about the art of revealing information in novels called "Teaching Your Reader Magic." The central idea was that a large and unsung part of writing, especially genre writing, is actually teaching. When you reveal your world to a reader who has never experienced it before, you are, in a sense, teaching them the rules you will be playing by for the duration of the novel. Like all teaching, whether you do this well or poorly determines your student/reader's experience with the subject matter. Just as a bad teacher can ruin your interest in a subject for life, bad/clumsy/poorly thought out writing can destroy the coolest of concepts. It doesn't matter how awesome your magic system or world is, if you can't explain it, ain't no one gonna care.

This also applies to characters. Think about when you go to a party and your host introduces you to a large circle of people, rattling off names as they go. Chances are, you will not remember a single one of those people by the time the introductions are done and you're left alone standing awkwardly in front of a bunch of staring strangers. Not good times.

Now, imagine if you go to that same party and instead of throwing you instantly into the crowd, your host introduces you to only one person, but that person has an amazingly interesting job or is doing something incredibly cool. They're also witty and charming, and they want to get to know you, too. You're gonna remember that person. Hell, you might even develop an instant crush on that person. 

This is the interaction I want between my readers and my characters. When I introduce a character, I try to show them being as interesting as possible, and I always give the spotlight to only one person at a time. I don't throw in distractions or other names or even other people (though I will use unnamed throwaway characters/archetypes to provide dialogue or tension, like a faceless guard or, in Eli's case, a door). Basically, I'm angling to recreate that one on one introduction and instant sense of connection/fascination of meeting an amazing person at a party, because once I've got my reader thinking of this fictional character as someone they want to know more about and spend more time with, I've got them hooked and I can safely move on to other characters or plot elements.

This very focused, single file method of introduction works best with main characters, but it can easily be used in a speed up version on minor characters as well by using the main, already introduced character as a bridge, or, as I like to call them, the key character. If we got back to our party analogy, your key character is like the host, they're the person the reader already knows who introduces them to the people they don't. A very good key character can introduce a reader to several minor characters all at once, but of course you have to keep numbers reasonable, stagger the introductions, and make sure everyone has a telling detail to aid in memory if you want to avoid the "oh my god who are these people? NOT GOOD TIMES!" reaction I mentioned above.

A good example of the key character in action is when Gandalf brings Thorin and his dwarves into Bilbo's house in The Hobbit. In this scene, Gandalf and Bilbo, both established characters the reader already cares about, act as key characters to provide context and relevance to what would otherwise be a crazy mess of 13 singing dwarves we don't care about. However, since Tolkein has been kind enough to provide us with hosts for his dwarf party, people we like who can rapidly establish why all this mountain song is important, disaster is averted and the book can move on with relatively little fuss even though I still couldn't name all the dwarves by the end.

By introducing important characters one at a time and then using these characters as anchors for the introduction of other characters, you ensure that your reader never overwhelmed by an onslaught of new information. Just like you teach your reader magic by introducing them to your world step by logical step, so do you have them learn your cast by introducing people either one at a time, or in very specific context to a character they already know. 

Pulling this off in your text can be tricky and requires a deft hand with the story's tension and pacing to make sure things don't get boring, but it's so worth it. By introducing people single file and using established characters to introduce new ones, just as you yourself would introduce your friends to someone new in the real world, you can ease your reader into an enormous cast with almost no strain, or forgotten names, on their part. Trust me, this is a very useful tool.

4) Be Smart With Your Names
I know I said waaaaay back up in #1 that names aren't how people remember characters initially, but that doesn't mean they aren't important. Once you've gotten your characters established, name becomes enormously important, because in a medium largely without pictures, that name is how your reader sees the character. 

Now, I am as guilty as any author of spending far too much time on Behind The Name and Fantasy name generators searching for that perfect name, especially when it comes to name meanings. But unless my reader is also on the web looking up the historical meanings of your character's, most of this fiddling is purely for myself. And that's fine, but when it comes to making sure readers pick up and remember the names of your characters, the criteria of what makes a good name is a little different.

First (and this is vital in genre fiction), the name has to be pronounceable. Most people hear the words they read in their heads as they're reading. This sounding out is vital to memory, and if they can't figure out what a character's name sounds like name, they're going to skip it. This is bad. You don't ever want your reader skipping anything, especially not a name you need them to remember for the story to work. Also, unpronounceable/unspellable names make it really difficult to talk up a book to your friends, and that's never a good thing. So no matter how much I may personally like a name, if my husband can't pronounce it off a sheet of paper, I pick something else. It's just not worth the risk.

Another thing to consider is how your cast's names work together. A big part of this is making sure people from the same culture have believably related names (none of this: "I'm Aiden and this is my brother, Wazakiki!") and just making sure your names fit into your world building in general. This is not to say you can't have someone with a radically different name, or even that you have to provide an explanation for it, but you do need other characters to at least comment on this oddity in the reader's stead to acknowledge the oddity. I didn't do this as much as I should have in the Eli Books and man, did I get flack for it.

In addition to making sure your cast's names fit within the context of the story, it's also good to think about making sure everyone's first letters don't overlap too much. Again, there's no law that says you have to do this, but a book where the main characters were Elton, Eliza, and Ella would get kind of confusing (unless, of course, it's a middle grade novel featuring three plucky siblings where the E names are a joke, in which case it's charming). 

Really, though, repeating first letters isn't a big deal so long as you don't have two characters sharing a first and last letter. For the reason why, see the example below.

Ain't the brain neat? Anyway, because of this phenomenon, character names that share a first and last letter, such as Eliza and Estella, are extremely easy to confuse. These days, my rule is that if I'm transposing the names myself while I'm writing the book, then someone's name needs to change. Because if I'm messing it up, the reader definitely will, and no name is worth that hassle to me.

Wow, this got a lot longer than I expected. I hope you enjoyed this Seven Years In Tibet of a blog post about making sure your reader keeps up with the cast of your book. As always, feel free to leave me a comment with your thoughts on the subject, and if you like my writing posts, I hope you'll follow me here on the blog or on Twitter! Thank you for reading and I hope you find this helpful!

Yours etc.,

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Thoughts on Fantasy Empires

This afternoon, in a fit of reader upset, I tweeted a general complaint about Fantasy Empires. You know the sort: the utopic paradises that rule for thousands of years in perfect peace until Something Happens, usually addressed by the plot of the book in question. Maybe these paradises of perfect rule fell ages ago, taking all learning with them and plunging humanity back into the Stone Age. Or maybe they're still hanging around in the twilight of their decline, just waiting for the right missing heir or new enlightened ruler of the people.

Whatever their fate, Empires are as much a part of classic fantasy as swords or sorcery, and they bug the hell out of me. Not because I have problem with organized government, but because many fantasy empires also come along with absurdly long timelines that are, frankly, far less believable than any magic portal or mythical creature. Maybe an empire lasted a thousand years before it fell. Maybe two thousand. I actually just finished a (not to be named) novel that featured a long fallen empire that had enjoyed a jaw dropping four thousand years of peace and prosperity before being overthrown by some uppity corpses and their establishment hating necromancer turned king. For reference, 4000 years ago Earth time, most human populations were still in the Bronze Age. 

When I mentioned this on Twitter, I got an overwhelming, and very well thought out response. So much so that I was inspired to write a blog post about the issue. Have I mentioned how much I love you guys? 'Cause I do!

It's not that I have anything against the idea of a long dead empire filled with the promise of a better life and new ideas for people of this time. That's great trope, and one that's well grounded in our own history. It was, after all, the rediscovery of Roman and Greek culture and knowledge that kicked off the Renaissance. My problem is with the crazy timelines author pull out when they want to impress people. As one of my awesome Tweeples (@franklinnoble) points out, the Warcraft Lore has a shocking ten thousand years where basically nothing happens. Ten thousand years! That's pretty much all of human history as we know it reduced to a "meh, some stuff, whatevs."

It doesn't matter what kind of story you're writing, or what kind of Empire you create, they all have one thing in common in that they're full of people. Oh maybe not humans in the technical sense, but they are full of characters written as humans by humans who generally share human traits like bravery, ingenuity, greed, laziness, etc. The point is that generations of thinking mortals do not pass time idly. They invent, they innovate, they get angry and riot, they fall under the sway of charismatic leaders and revolt, they change the world. That's what people do, they change their environment, and unless an outside force (immortal Godking, magically enforced happiness and placidity, widespread institutionalized immortality, etc.) is forcing them to be still, they're going to be moving and shaking their world. 

This isn't to say you can't have a long lived empire. But, as many people on Twitter pointed out, all the great, long lived empires of our world (Egypt, Rome, Byzantium, etc.) went through enormous shifts, changes and upheavals. They survived yes, but not as unified wholes. They changes along with the people in them.

To me, enormously long blocks of time in books where things stayed basically the same are the epitome of lazy world building. Want to make something sound impressive? Add a big number to it! But unless there's a reason for such a long period of stillness, this sort of lazy zero adding does more harm than good. At best, it stretches disbelief, at worst, it paints a picture of a lazy, stagnant world.

Now, I'm pretty sure this bothers me A LOT MORE than it bothers other readers, but it's still something I'd really appreciate more authors thinking about, especially those in my beloved Epic Fantasy field. I'm not saying you need a detailed history of every year, especially if they're not important, but a little thought and effort to put your history on a human scale would be, by this reader at least, very appreciated.

Hearts and kisses, 
Reader Rachel

Friday, May 10, 2013

Writing it Fast vs Writing it Right

Last night I got a tweet that beautifully encapsulated an insecurity I've had for a while now. 

I swear, Sofia, I'm not posting this to pick on you! This is actually a very legitimate question that does not have a clean, easy, 140 character answer, and so here I am in the long form.

Since figuring out how to write 10k a day, I've maintained a steady 7-8k daily writing average, sometimes dipping down to 5k, sometimes going up to 12k depending on a number of factors like stress, personal life, where I am in the story, etc. I also plan my books carefully, even more so now than I used to, and yet for the past several novels I've had to stop in the middle of the book and go back, often multiple times. Not because I wasn't following the plan, but because I'd realized mid-writing that the plan was wrong.

The problem with becoming known for writing quickly is that an internal pressure starts to build. Once I wrote a book in twelve days, suddenly I felt like I had to write everything at maximum speed. If I didn't, people would think I was a fraud and a failure. I was failing people who believed in me, failing myself, DOOOOOOOM!

This is, of course, complete bumpkiss. Books are not widgets or standardized puzzles you solve. Target Word Count / Words Per Hour =/= Total Hours Spent on a novel. All the planning and methods in the world can't stop things from going off track. Grand plans fall through, better ideas appear, shine wears off, mistakes are made. Hell, sometimes I'm just flat out wrong about how a novel needs to go, and discovering just how wrong I am can be a multi-week process that ends with me stopping the book mid-draft and going back to fix things because I simply can't keep going forward on such a faulty structure.

Setbacks like these can be very frustrating. They are also a totally natural part of writing. There is no efficiency hack for having all the right ideas at the right time. Things that look easy during plotting turn out to be wrong in amazingly subtle ways once you get into the actual text. This doesn't mean my time planning them was wasted. Quite the contrary, if I hadn't planned what I was going to do, I wouldn't have been able to see that it wasn't working until the book was finished, or failed utterly.

As my books get more complex and my ability to self edit improves, I find myself stopped and going back to re-write more and more. As a result, it's actually started taking me longer to finish each book than a year ago, and while I'm not happy about that, I don't feel I've been wasting my time. Is this the most efficient way to work? Almost certainly not, and I'm actively looking for a way to make it more so, because EFFICIENCY!

But while I hope one day to figure out a brilliant breakthrough process that will eliminate this backtracking, but I'm not holding my breath. The truth is, no matter how good my methods get or how much experience I accrue, I'm going to make keep making mistakes in my books. Because I am human, and (despite my love of best practices and repeatable results) this is an art, not a science. I'm okay with that, though, because what really matters is getting the story right.

When all is said and done, no one will remember how fast I wrote a book. No one will care how few or many drafts it took. These things are purely for me. But at the end of the day, all readers care about, and therefore all I really care about, is the story itself. Did I give them a tale well told? Did I deliver on the promise I made them when they took a gamble on my book? This is what really matters in writing, not speed or efficiency or any of the other things I can get so obsessed with. And this is why, despite my grousing and moaning, I never truly begrudge rewrites. What feels like a a knock backwards is a actually necessary step in the right direction, even if I was only figuring out that I was headed in the wrong one. The point is that I'm still moving, and when I am finished, I will have the best book possible, which is the goal of the entire operation.

Happy writing/rewriting!
- Rachel (now in the middle of her third, and hopefully final, rewrite of the middle of this book)