Characters: too many or too few?

A well-respected bit of writing advice says you should limit the characters you introduce to your reader. Some have argued that you shouldn’t introduce more than five in the first chapter; others say you shouldn’t introduce more than two or three at any given time.

It’s good advice. Having worked in the food industry, I’m all too familiar with the consequences of being loaded with dozens of names and faces in a short period of time. Pretty soon even the distinctive, memorable ones start disappearing into the vague masses.

Pretty simple, right?

But while I was working on a post-apocalyptic story a few years back, I learned you can have the opposite problem. In this story, I had too few characters, which meant I had way too many. Continue reading “Characters: too many or too few?”

When rules can be broken

Let’s start with an old grammar joke.

Two women are sitting next to each other on a train. The first turns to the second and asks “So where are you from?”

The second sniffs. “I’m from a place where we do not end a sentence with a preposition.”

Ever the courteous conversationalist, the first corrects herself: “So where are you from, asshole?” 

Grammar’s funny like that.

Almost nobody adheres to the joke’s preposition rule, because bending over backwards to avoid a preposition can make sentences ridiculously convoluted. Seriously, how could you possibly rephrase the opening question? “From whence do you hail?”

There’s nothing casual or friendly about that, unless you’re at a renfaire. So the first woman did the sensible thing and sacrificed the grammatical rule for the sake of her message.

Meaning can be more than clarity

When you understand a rule, you can break it in a way that leaves an impression on the reader.

If you spend much time on Tumblr, you’ll notice that text will randomly go into all caps and jumbled letters whEN THE WRITERS GET SUPER EXCITED AFKLSDJLKFDSL. The point is that the writer is so incredibly excited and/or angry that their emotion becomes more important than the subject they’re talking about, conveying that the thing they’re talking about is either too amazing or too awful for words.

It works just as well in fiction.

Sentence fragments can indicate fragmented thought. Run-on sentences can convey anxiety. Particular errors can become hallmarks of a character’s voice. For example, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes famously begins with so many spelling and grammatical errors that it can seem nigh unintelligible, because throughout the story, the way Charly writes signals as much (if not more) to the audience as the content of his words. During the entire book, you can map his mental state by his writing style. The same can be said about Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn, in which individual letters are systematically excised from the text throughout the novel. The more draconian the town’s laws become, the more convoluted the prose becomes.

If you’re tempted to use style in this way, though, keep three things in mind:

  • These flourishes are all deliberately placed by the writer
  • The reader’s attention is drawn to the dramatic flourishes and away from the text itself
  • The dramatic flourishes actively reinforce the most important part of the text

It’s important to beware, though. Get too bold with your style, and you may sacrifice the content of your words altogether.

Do you have any flourishes you favor? Know any good grammar jokes? Are there styles that drive you batty? Tell us in the comments!

Why writing rules are so hard

Depending on who you ask, there are six rules for proper use of a comma or sixteen. Depending on who you ask, numbers should be written out or typed as numerals, or written out and then typed as numerals inside of parentheses.

Why? What’s up with these rules? What’s the point, and why all the changes? Continue reading “Why writing rules are so hard”

Getting from a concept to a story

The amazing thing about being a writer is that you learn to spot the ideas and ‘what if’s that other people would normally pass by. They’re everywhere, and they’re incredible. And they can also be incredibly frustrating. You can get incredibly intricate and detailed ideas in your head, but for the life of you, you can’t do anything about it. Creating a world is wonderful, but it’s just words on paper unless you have a story to take place within it.

So you’ve got an idea…

This afternoon I had a conversation this afternoon on the subject, so I’ll use that as an example: one character discovers that his friend doesn’t actually exist.

It’s a fantastic idea, and there’s a lot of directions you can go on the subject. So how do you shape that idea into a story?

Find the problem

At its core, every story is driven by some form of desire. Everyone wants something– a new bike, their crush to return their affections, the ability to live to see tomorrow, etc.

Every character is going to have a desire driving them– at least one, and often more.

  • Does the real friend want the unreal friend to find out about their non-existence?
  • Does the unreal friend feel threatened by their non-existence and want to feel more secure?
  • Does the real friend envy the unreal friend’s way of life? What about the other way around?

And so forth. There are nearly endless variations of things that your characters can want out of life.

Look for a solution

Once you figure out what each character wants, figure out how they’re going to go about pursuing that thing, and then have them pursue it. Plot is what happens when we watch them try, fail, try again, and possibly even succeed. Of course, they don’t have to succeed, and sometimes it’s for the best that they don’t. People don’t always want what’s best for them, and sometimes Character A getting what they want can have some nasty repercussions for Character B.

When that happens, or when Character A’s needs clash with Character B’s desires, that creates conflict, and that’s what the Western idea of story is built around.

Make sure the action is active

A general rule of thumb I’ve seen around: If the character can get over their internal by just sitting alone in a room and thinking really hard about it, then it wasn’t really a conflict. If a pair of characters can solve their conflict by just sitting down and having a conversation like actual adults, that wasn’t a conflict, either. Problems shouldn’t be solved by navel-gazing.

You can have issues be resolved through conversation and meditation, but the actual conflict will be whatever prevented those processes from happening in the first place.

The problem with Lawful Good

((image via Know Your Meme))

If you’re a nerd, you know a nerd, or you’ve spent any amount of time on the internet, you’ve probably seen some variation of the above image. It’s a chart of the standard Dungeons & Dragons character alignments, which goes by the theory that any given character can be charted a spectrum between good and evil, lawful and neutral.

And it works. Kinda. In theory.

Law and chaos aren’t that big of a discrepancy– on one side you have order and adherence to authority, and on the other you have rebellion and… well, chaos.

It’s the other spectrum that’s always given me trouble. Continue reading “The problem with Lawful Good”

A state of being: what you are vs. what you want

There’s a piece of wisdom passed along the writing circles of this day and age: to round up your linking verbs and off ’em like turkeys on the week before Thanksgiving. At first glance it’s good advice– after all, the natural opposite of a static ‘was’ sentence would be an active sentence, right?


Not always. In fact, it’s easy to fall for the temptation to replace that simple ‘he was sad’ with something much longer and more flowery that, in the end, contains no more meaning than ‘he was sad’. Rather than turning a passive sentence active, you wind up with the dreaded purple prose.

The problem here is that people are thinking too much about the letter of the rule with the intention (if it doesn’t contain a single instance of ‘was’, it must be active, right?). So maybe it’s time to rethink states of being– that elusive thing that a character ‘is’ at any given moment.

When we think of emotion, we often think of it as a reaction. 

I haven’t eaten all day, therefore I’m hungry.

Her book got a bad review, so she’s sad.

He’s angry because he was insulted.

That line of thinking may be accurate, but it’s also passive. It makes the person feeling those things into an object to be acted upon, rather than an active agent.

Instead I challenge you to rethink emotion and states of being– not as something a character is, but as a thing they want.

In the most recent Sims game, all the characters have states of being called moodlets– happy, sad, uncomfortable, angry, etc– each of which triggers certain desires. A Sim who’s feeling embarrassed might have a sudden urge to hide from the world in their bed; a Sim who’s feeling feeling flirty might want to hug someone; an angry Sim might want to insult someone, and so forth.

What it looks like:

So let’s take a plain emotion:

Bob is angry at Jim.

Translate it into a desire, and you have:

Bob wants to punch Jim in the face.

The fact that Bob’s angry at Jim still comes across, but without that pesky ‘is’. Of course, repeating ‘Bob wants’ every paragraph is boring. So you can take it a step further. Figuring out what the character wants makes it that much easier to find a physical expression of that desire:

Bob clenches his fist.

Some further examples:

  • Sue was disgusted.
  • Sue wanted to throw up.
  • Sue tasted vomit rising in her throat.


  • Dave is hungry.
  • Dave wants a sandwich.
  • Dave’s stare keeps straying to Dana’s sandwich during their conversation.

A quick diatribe on dialogue

Real dialogue sounds something like this:

“By the way, did you know they’re making Pacific Rim 2? Oh, and dinner’s ready.”

Cue five minutes of shouting and vague TV noises while Boxy shoots at zombies while some cheesy horror flick is playing on the second monitor, followed by:



Seriously, that was last night’s pre-dinner conversation.

Real-life dialogue is… unique. It’s awkward, it’s choppy, it’s unfocused, it frequently meanders off-topic, it picks up on arbitrary unintelligible inside-jokes and half-finished conversations from earlier in the day/week/month/year, it’s full of filler words like ‘like’ and ‘um’.

In short, real dialogue is pretty much unintelligible.

In some cases, you get people who understand each other so well that their communication is might as well be another language to outside observers, full of codes and allusions and inside-jargon that’s unique to their in-group, even if it’s an in-group of two.

Linguistically and anthropologically, it’s absolutely fascinating.

As a general rule, though, dialogue shouldn’t require an advanced degree in anthropology and linguistics to figure out. In novels, dialogue is meant to convey information to the reader, so there are certain goals you should probably aim for:

  • A smooth flow from one subject to the next, and from one mood to the next
  • Clear language: even when using slang and dialect, it shouldn’t be a complete puzzle to figure out what your character is trying to say
  • Everything said in the dialogue should serve a purpose, so avoid filler topics and filler language

Of course, like all things in writing, those are guidelines more than hard rules. But when you deviate from the guidelines, make sure you do it with an understanding of why they’re in place and what you’re specifically gaining by going off that track.


The issue with Issue One

Saturday was Free Comic Book Day. While I was making the rounds, I bought the first three issues of Loki: Agent of Asgard, and the new Amazing Spider-Man issue 1.

In medias… what now?

I’m a lifelong fan of Spider-Man. He was my first super hero; his was the first super hero movie I watched, and his were the first comics I read. But this first issue reminded me of why I had a hard time getting into American comics to begin with. It was the first issue– a bright shiny 001 on the front cover. But when I look into it, I find myself almost entirely lost, thrown in neck-deep into what looks like the middle of a very long and complicated story arc.

Er… sorry, I’ve been busy for the last few years and haven’t been able to keep up. What the heck is going on?

Fortunately, Peter is as confused about a lot of these developments as I am, and I can use his reactions to the situation to gauge how far this is from what he considers normal. The storytelling works in such a way that I can still follow along, but the entire time I feel like I’m missing something, and I won’t be able to feel like I’ve caught up until I’ve read the entirety of the plot arc that precedes this issue– or until I’ve been reading this series long enough that I’m acclimated to this new normal.

The story so far

On the other end of the spectrum is Loki. The first page is a Star Wars-esque page that succinctly explains the situation. A few pages later, he explains the powers he uses, so I clearly understand the rules of the situation. When other plot arcs are referenced, they’re labeled [See the Civil War saga!] which makes looking up what happened about a billion times easier.

(Full disclosure: The fact that the story opens on an attractive dude singing showtunes in the shower didn’t hurt my opinion of the book, either– in a medium that’s often brimming with cleavage, it’s nice to see fanservice aimed in my direction every once in a while.)

Getting to know you

A third approach is that taken by Ms. Marvel: we’re exposed to super-hero-saturated world Kamala Kahn lives in through background details while we’re shown a day in her life. The first few issues of her story have been focused on her origins, so the reader is introduced to the mechanics of her world and her powers at the same time that she does.

 Back to writing

Fictional worlds are often large and complicated, and there’s always going to be a learning curve when it comes to figuring out a fictional character’s life and world. The further removed that they are from the reader’s daily life, the steeper that curve gets. And yes, if that curve gets too steep, some of your readers might fall off entirely.

The approach used in Spider-Man didn’t work that well for me– not because it’s bad, but because it didn’t mesh as well with my style of readership as other styles did. Most readers will have a preference about what kind of opening they like, whether it’s fast-paced and immersive, slow and guided, or something in between. Different approaches will work better with different worlds, with different narrators, and with different conflicts.

If you’re not sure if you’re starting the story the right way, try experimenting. Play around with different narrative styles– throw us in headfirst and only tell us the essential stuff, or give it to us piece by piece. Show it to readers (though preferably not to readers who already know what’s going on) and find what gets the best response. Sometimes you’ll find that you have to cut out a lot of explanations and background details over the course of exploring, but that’s all right. Even if those details are never used in the story, they’ll add even more depth to the world than it had before.

The Castiel Problem

Actor Misha Collins portrays our unfortunate angel  — Image from Wikimedia Commons

(Warning: Since this is about Supernatural and its approach to plot and characterization, there’ll be unmarked spoilers all the way up to Season 9.)

While I’m posting disclaimers, I should include another biggie: I really love Supernatural. It’s a fun show, I watch it every week, and Castiel is by far my favorite character.

That said, he’s also the character I would probably change the most dramatically if I was writing the show, if not cut him out entirely. And here’s why:

Same verse, same as the first

Castiel has a bit of a cycle: He trusts the wrong person, does bad things on their behalf thinking it’s For The Greater Good, is betrayed by said person, mucks everything up, and gets redeemed by the Winchesters (usually within an episode or so of them finding out about it). Somewhere along the way, he’ll be stripped of his (pick as many of you like):

  • Powers
  • Wings
  • Memories
  • Morality
  • Autonomy
  • Life

But only for a few episodes– just enough for a quick “DUN DUN DUN” and maybe some brief scenes of him adjusting to the new status quo. But before there’s any real chance to fully explore the complications and long-term consequences of this major change, it’s fixed… just in time for him to meet the next wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s gotten so common that I’m wondering why he doesn’t introduce himself with “Hello, I’m Castiel, and you’re probably going to betray me.”

I don’t know why the show is written the way it is– clearly people are aware of this cycle, since several times the characters have pointed out that it keeps happening to the poor guy– but this blog isn’t about picking apart other works. It’s about learning from them.

What we can learn from Castiel:

A character can be too powerful

I firmly believe that one of the reasons Castiel keeps getting nerfed is because he’s simply too powerful. The guy unsank the Titanic for an episode, for Chuck’s sake. Time, space, the laws of physics– none of these actually matter to this guy when he’s at full strength. It’s pretty awesome when his opponents play by the same rules, but not so much when you’re dealing with werewolves, vampires, and other puny mortals. For an added bonus, he’s not even the protagonist, which means that the real protagonists of the show– puny mortals that they are– keep getting overshadowed by their literal Deus Ex Machina best friend unless you depower him, turn him evil, or punt him out of the picture.

Characters have to learn from their experiences in order to be dynamic

The first time Cas went through the cycle, it was gut-wrenching. He lost his faith and went on a huge drinking binge, only to learn that it didn’t actually fix anything. He had to learn how to be useful with his knowledge, his ingenuity, and with puny human weapons like shotguns and molotov cocktails. He saw his friends in pain and need, and had to deal with the anger, blame and guilt of not being able to help them when he could have before.  As a result, he had to completely re-evaluate his perspective, his loyalties, and the way he thought of himself.

Fast-forward four seasons. We’ve learned the hard way that every time he gets put in cosmic time out, he’s pulled back again. Rather than adjusting to a new way of life and learning from what happened, he gets a pat on the shoulder, an assurance that “we can fix this,” and a heaping helping of Winchester brand self-loathing. He doesn’t learn from these mistakes, because if he did, the same plot wouldn’t keep happening to him over and over again. In short, it drags character growth to a near halt. Rather than exploring the way a permanent change can affect relationship dynamics and approaches to old problems, we’re stuck in a sort of plot purgatory, reliving the same developments over and over again.

If you’re going to pull a game-changer, be willing to commit to it

I recently saw a post on Tumblr comparing the first three seasons of Supernatural to the recent seasons, calling the former a genuinely frightening horror series and the latter a “soap opera”. And as much as I recoiled from that statement when I read it, I can’t argue against it. As a viewer, it’s hard to take major developments seriously anymore. Death stops being a threat when Dean looks at his murderer and declares “When I get back, I’m gonna be pissed.” Death, possession, de-powering, even major psychotic breaks are fixed within half a season– which, while it doesn’t take away the fun of watching it happen, takes away the legitimate drama of those events and brings them into the realm of melodrama.

If you want your audience to take you seriously, you have to be willing to do the same to them. Don’t pull any punches. If we’re told that “this is going to change everything,” let it actually change everything.

Be careful of repeating yourself

One of the issue’s with Castiel’s character arc is that it keeps repeating itself so precisely. It’s one thing to repeat themes or motifs throughout a story, but if you recycle the same conflict or plot point over and over again, your audience will notice. Do it blatantly enough, and they may even get bored and move on.

If any of this is hard to remember, I can sum it all up in one simple point:

Chuck is God, the Status Quo is not

Don’t keep trying to drag the story back to its baseline. Don’t keep trying to turn a character back into who they used to be. Don’t keep tempting us with major changes and then bailing out at the last minute. Allow the story, the characters, and the situations to grow and change organically, without shoehorning them back into their old shape.

Your readers will thank you.

(Though if Supernatural is any indication, your characters might not.)

When hopes are dashed: Dramatic Irony

I have a hard time reading in public, because I’m very… let’s say interactive with my reading. I make faces, I get up and pace, I yell at the characters, I (carefully place a bookmark on my page and then) hurl the book across the room.

It’s such a common practice for me that I sometimes forget that not everybody else acts that way all the time. I was talking to a less violent reader about it, who had this to say:

Stacy: I have done that in two other cases. One: reading Lord of the Rings. Two: reading Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. // It is like the story itself slaps you with an unexpected left hook. And you are all glass jaw and feelings.

Me: I’m curious– which part of the The Lord of the Rings got to you?

Stacy: Sam facing Shelob. // He yells Elvish and it is a miracle that he knows it. // And then Tolkien is all “by the way, this monster is older than Elves and finds the attempt adorably useless”. // And I screamed at Sam because he doesn’t know. // Elves are everything. And good. And like a secret crazy weapon. So good vibes that Sam has that. Then… dashed.

I hear a lot of advice about surprising a reader by doing the unexpected, and about using dramatic irony to build suspense. Usually those pieces of advice are in completely different conversations, but they can come together beautifully to leave the reader completely shattered– as Stacy put it– all glass jaw and feelings.

Yeah, it feels kinda like that. Photo from via Wikimedia Commons
Yeah, it feels kinda like that.
Photo from via Wikimedia Commons
Isn’t it ironic…
By definition, dramatic irony is what you get when the reader knows something that the character doesn’t. You’ll see something big revealed during a prologue, or you’ll have seen Psycho and Silence of the Lambs before watching Bates Motel and Hannibal, and every moment after that is just waiting for the ax to fall on the unwitting characters.
With a situation like Sam’s in The Lord of the Rings, you get something a bit different.
After all this time, the reader has caught on to certain rules. These are the tropes upon which the world (or even the entire genre) is built, and the reader has learned to predict what will come next based on those rules, right along with the character. And then you learn that the context has changed, just in time to watch it all fall apart.
Everything in moderation
I love Tumblr
I love Tumblr
The thing about this technique is that you can’t use it often. Joss Whedon and George R. R. Martin are both famous for their ‘anyone can die’ philosophy– and so while it might have been shocking the first few times a beloved character meets an unfortunate end, after a while the readers stop trusting them. They hold characters at arm’s length and hold pre-emptive funerals for their favorites. But they’re master storytellers; change the rules once too often, and you may lose your credibility to the reader.
I had one particularly bad experience in which we got so many flip-flops between magic and science (“there is magic in this world!” “Just kidding, it’s sufficiently advanced technology!” “Just kidding, it’s actual magic!” “Just kidding, it’s actually technology!”) that it was starting to sound like the author was just making up new rules as they went along, without any plan or consistency, and I gave up entirely.
Some tips
  • Use gut punches like this sparingly– they’re most effective when they’re unexpected.
  • Look at the rhythm of your scenes. Some scenes are obviously building up to a big shock, and so the reader is likely already bracing for impact before it strikes.
  • This is one of those situations where mood whiplash would come in handy.
  • Even if gut punches are effective, they won’t affect everyone equally. Make sure the scene is strong enough to be plausible even if the reader isn’t caught up by shock.