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.