Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday Forays in Fiction: Character Birth Control

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Last week I talked about naming characters. This week I'm confessing to a problem that has plagued nearly every one of my WIP of novella length and up: out of control proliferation of characters. That is how my FOS (Fruits of the Spirit) story world grew out a single short story for a creative writing class into a projected novel length project estimated at 200 pages then 500 pages then 1000 pages then.a possible series with each book focused on one or two POV characters. Projected series length ranging from five to ten novels depending on how much doubling up of POV characters is desirable. (Doublig up would only be done when it would enhance both stories as, for example, when the plots of the two POV characters are so entwined they can't be told separately or their themes are enhanced by juxtaposition.)

With a cast of characters spanning 70 some years and five generations numbering over 100 the project got so unwieldy and intimidating, the plot lines so tangled not to mention the time lines that I keep stalling out. One of the things that torments me the most and keeps my fingers frozen over the keyboard is the fear of corrupting the stories of the characters not in focus while working on the current POV story.

Or to put it another way: Faye's twin Julia has a major role in Faye's story, being onstage with Faye in over fifty percent of the scenes. But Julia has a POV story which will likely have its own book. Faye will have as big a role in Julia's story but I chose to focus on Faye's story first and every fork in the plot line that I choose delimits not only Faye's story but also Julia's and Wilma's and Estelle's and, and, and..

I worry about spoilers for future novels dropped into the current story; about what Faye does or does not (can or cannot) know about Julia's story at any point and visa versa; about discovering that Julia's story requires her to be out of town or out of country when Faye's story has her in a crucial scene. Multiply that by a factor of ten for that's how many separate POV characters with stories strong enough to carry a novel there are.

For last year's NaNo novel I set aside FOS and designed a project that took advantage of my propensity to proliferate characters. I set my story in a trailer park and designed it to be a collection of interwoven short stories featuring a dozen or more separate households with over thirty characters including a cat and a ghost.

That plan lent itself to my weakness for character creation, turning it into a strength for the purpose of generating word count fast. But it once again left me with a tangled mess of entwined plot threads which I've barely looked at since November 30.

This year I'm trying to limit the characters in my NaNo novel to as few as possible. The protagonist, the antagonist and one or two significant supporting cast for each. I'm also hoping to have a pretty good idea of the most significant events on the plot line from backstory through beginning to middle to end before November 1st. This time I'm hoping to have something at the end of the month that won't enter my dreams like gremlins--cute and cuddly tumbling into a swimming pool and then shooting through the roof shattering the boundaries and spewing gunk--making me afraid to open the file again.

So it was perfect timing to find a newsletter in my inbox this week from Holly Lisle entitled Don't Breed Characters which addressed just this problem. I wish I could link you to it so you could read it. If you are interested drop me a line at joystory AT gmail DOT com and I'll forward it to you. Meanwhile consider signing up for Holly's writing tips newsletters. They're helpful, amusing and uplifting.

I find much of the material on Holly's website to be of the same character as her newsletter. I love hanging out there. I won her plot clinic during my participation in the first Sweating for Sven contest and it unlocked a lot of things for me. But although I also like Holly Lisle's stories I have a feeling she wouldn't be all that enthused about mine. I base that on things she has alluded to in her writing advice using examples of published stories which I have admired and aspire to emulate as 'what not to do'. But on the other hand I am confident she still has much to teach me as there must be a reason why, with almost the same number of years of effort expended, Holly has 30 plus published novels while I have only 300 plus frolicking characters trapped on the screens of my computer and my mind.

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