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Things getting out of hand

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by TheokinsJ, Jul 14, 2013.

  1. TheokinsJ

    TheokinsJ Troubadour

    Until a few weeks ago I thought I had everything under control, I was writing at a steady pace and things were going well. Now, roughly fifty pages in, I find that things are very quickly getting out of hand. I didn't realise how many characters I had actually created, and these are important ones; roughly twenty, and then there are almost as many minor ones who are mentioned in a sentence or two. I started mistaking characters for others, thinking two people were the same person, I need a way to organise it all.
    The reason I have not put things on paper before is because things are likely to change. I started drawing family trees of my characters only to find that I would change their names to better-sounding ones, or would change the layout of the family tree because it would help with the plot and conflict. I didn't realise how many I had created, what ways do you use to keep track of your characters and their families?
  2. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    That sounds like a lot of characters in only fifty pages. If that's 250 words per page, it's only 12500 words and equates to an important character or a minor character being introduced every 325 words. Are these characters only mentioned or do they have screen time, and how many of them are POV characters? If most are only mentioned, then ignore most of my concern, but still, maybe slow down the pace a bit. If you can't keep track of the characters because of sheer numbers in just 50 pages, how is a reader going to remember them all coming in cold?

    As for keeping track of your characters. Just keep a separate file listing the names of your characters with a info on who they are and how they fit into your story. Edit the file as you change things on the fly.
    TheokinsJ likes this.
  3. The Unseemly

    The Unseemly Troubadour

    With a situation like yours, my suggestion would be to sit down with pen(cil) and paper in hand or something similar (you don't have to necessarily write anything - its just there to help you with thinking), and figure out what exactly your storyline is supposed to be. You'll then get an idea of how many and what characters are needed. Don't be worried about the actual amount of characters if your characters are necessary. Slow down and take it easy.
  4. pskelding

    pskelding Troubadour

    Are you talking about that many POV characters? Or just characters?

    You probably should cut your POV characters down to about 3 if this is your first novel.

    My first novella has 1 POV character and about 10 characters in total. My first novel moves that up to 3 POV characters and about 20 characters I need to track through different scenes doing different things.
  5. TheokinsJ

    TheokinsJ Troubadour

    I only have 2 POV characters in the book, but each live on opposite sides of the world with different stories and different families. Also, I suppose my plot is somewhat to blame for introducing so many characters so soon- there is a meeting between the nine lords of the nine kingdoms in the opening chapters, each lord and their sons/daughters who accompany them, and the family/friends of one of the protagonist add up to I think roughly 19 characters in total, all of whom will play important roles later on.
  6. TWErvin2

    TWErvin2 Auror

    If you as the author cannot keep characters straight, there is no way a reader could be expected to do so.

    When you say they play important roles later on, I guess it depends on what is meant by important, but if 19 characters are mentioned, introduced, what are the chances the reader is going to remember or care about all those individuals at different times down the road?

    Also, think about it from the reader's perspective (be it an agent/editor or even a reader if you self-publish). What will their reaction be with this sort of beginning? If they're confused, will they continue reading?

    If you have two POV characters, the readers will anchor who other characters are by their relationship (be it family, friend, rival, fellow merchant, etc.) to that POV character. You can build from there, but too many all at once, in a few chapters? It can be done, I suppose, and I am sure there are examples out there. If so, see how that author(s) successfully managed it.
    TheokinsJ likes this.
  7. Ennokos

    Ennokos Dreamer

    Although I can't give any advice from my own experience since I like to have only a few characters to switch POV, have you drawn a map? If you have, then stick it on a wall somewhere and create a little sticky note or something for each character. Put them on the map where they are located and when they move, move the sticky note. That way you can keep track of what interactions could take place and also you can see if some characters are needed.

    Just my tip on organisation, hope it helps.

    Edit: Didn't see the OP say he had two POV, deleted some bits pertaining to that.
    Last edited: Jul 14, 2013
    TheokinsJ likes this.
  8. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

    In our WIP, the first book in a long series (projected atm to be about 12 - 15 books covering 50 years) we have 7 POV characters - 5 protagonists, 1 antagonist, and 1 monkey-in-the-middle. Total so far we have 300+ named series characters, not all of course will be POV characters. We keep everything organized with a combination of outlining (I am a major outline freak) and using the Microsoft Office program OneNote (LOVE this program) to organize all world building and character details. As changes and new details emerge, I simply bring up the program and make the notes, thereby guaranteeing that no one will ever have a repeated name, a forgotten eye color or any other mix ups. Obviously, I will come out on the side of "there is nothing wrong with a large cast, as long as you keep them organized and unique." No need for 3 characters all doing the same job when 1 will do just as well.

    In my experience, if you're getting confused, the reader is guaranteed to get confused. And if you're getting confused, you may be starting out too big-picture. In our WIP we also have a meeting with all the leaders of the preternatural community, lots of names and faces and conflicting personalities - but it doesn't occur until Chapter 32 in Act 3, with a very established POV character anchoring the scene and filtering information for the reader. Starting with a scene like that right off the bat can be confusing, even with just one POV, because the reader, and apparently you, don't know who to focus on. Who's important? Who do we need to remember? Why is this important? And then the killer question - who cares?

    I would recommend spending some time looking at your story. If you're getting this lost this fast, I'm willing to bet you're pantsing it. This works for some people. For some people not so much. I know it doesn't work for me, and I've seen it turn out disastrously for writers attempting complicated works - even well established best-sellers. So, take a closer look at your story. Does it really start at this meeting, or does it start with something smaller, more intimate, something both you and the reader can better relate to? Sometimes the most epic avalanches start with tiny snowfalls.
    TheokinsJ likes this.
  9. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Just because 20 characters will eventually be important to the story doesn't mean they all have to be on stage in Act I, Scene 1. Take that meeting of the nine kings. You could just show the meeting. That's still nine people, which is two hands full, but it's better than nineteen. Alternatively, you could tell the whole thing from one character's point of view. The reader can hear the names of the kings, but there's no need to know their eye color and their favorite movie star. The important thing is the conflict, the tension. What happens at this meeting that's so important that you have to show it rather than just refer to it?
  10. Tirjasdyn

    Tirjasdyn Scribe

    I use computer software to keep track of characters. You can always change the information but you're gonna have to write it down. A Series Bible has all that information so an author can reference the color of a character's eyes, nicknames, important dates, personality etc...

    I've mentioned in other posts that I use yWriter...I can attach characters to the scene I'm writing so I can see who is in that scene and reference their notes without having to go to my world building docs unless I create something new that needs to go into them.

    You don't have to include every detail of your character in your story, but if you create a detail then you should write it down so you can reference it later. How far you go into describing your characters is up to you. Some writers know every wrinkle, others only write down the details they actually use. It's more important you know rather than it is in the story.

    Who cares if the details change...then you change your world building documents. Many writers make the mistake to think that once something is written down it is set in stone. No, it's not. That's what search and replace is for.

    20 characters isn't too bad for a political fantasy or even an epic. I wouldn't worry about it too much. I keep a master character excel sheet with characters I need to reference (like dates they died or their job title), a master world building file (in a tree notes type program but I"m transitioning to OneNote so I can have these details on my iPad and be able to edit the doc and write) then in ywriter for the story they are in so I can see which character is in which chapter.

    And this is where you're gonna get the outline talk. :D. Stop for a second and outline. When thing get out of control you have to reign them in. Again, an outline is not set in stone. You can certainly change it if things change. Later on, when you go to submit the book you'll have a good deal of the synopsis work out of the way.
    TheokinsJ likes this.
  11. Addison

    Addison Auror

    I had a similar problem with characters in a recent story and got a piece of advice from a literature pop quiz on "The Open Boat". One of the questions was "Who died?" and it listed the characters: the cook, the oiler, the captian, Billy.
    Who do you think died?

    Billy is the correct answer. Now look again at the listed characters. They are the only characters in the entire story, but only Billy was given a name. Why? To make us feel connected to him so we felt something when he died. So look again at your side characters. Who deserves a name? Who gives something to to the character, to the story, that deserves the reader to make a connection to them? If you name the Bartender Jeff but all Jeff does is wipe the counter and give drinks for the entire story with nothing meaningful happening to him then maybe he doesn't need the name.
  12. scottmarlowe

    scottmarlowe Dreamer

    I think you need at the least a simple list of their names and any pertinent info related to their role in the story. Especially the minor ones, which help add depth to the setting, but can easily fall through the cracks as the story gets larger and larger. I've not had complex enough relations yet where I need a family tree style layout, but I've found just having an easily referenced, alphabetical list of characters helps a lot.
  13. Tirjasdyn

    Tirjasdyn Scribe

    This is true. I keep a master list of characters in Excel with a few details I might need to reference. Things like when they died, where they were from and what titles or jobs they held.
  14. Chilari

    Chilari Staff Moderator

    I keep a file called "Character tracking" whenever I start a new story. In it is a table with the following information in:

    • Character name
    • Alternative names (such as nicknames, what I used to call them, titles etc)
    • Who they are in relation to the main character (eg Protag's Dad etc)
    • A few notes about their character, including both physical and personality traits
    • What they want.
    • What page they first appear on

    This means that if I can't remember something about a character, like what the protagonist's brother's name is, or which one the quiet one is, or which character would be most suitable for a particular role as part of a plan, I've got my notes to check. I just keep it updated whenever I've finished with a scene, I add in any new information about the character that I have included. Like I might not have given a physical description of one character before, but now added that she is short and muscular, and has a bit of a temper, I'll add that to character notes.
    T.Allen.Smith likes this.
  15. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    That's an outstanding idea! I'll be adding that to my character sketch sheets.
  16. scottmarlowe

    scottmarlowe Dreamer

    I like the master list idea. I've been doing it per novel, but since the novels all take place in the same world it makes sense to maintain a single, comprehensive list as well. I'll probably add high-level, important facts, like "such-and-such character left home 3 years ago", because those are the little details I'm never sure of as I'm writing. Having to dig around for that information always breaks me out of the writing groove, something I'd like to avoid.

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