Tag Archives: plot thread

Fantasy Literature: Many Characters, One Thread

As most (or all) of you know, I recently wrote and published a book entitled “Drasmyr.” It is a dark fantasy novel featuring a vampire named Lucian val Drasmyr. I have previously written about the difficulties that arise when you write novels featuring multiple major characters. However, upon reflection, I think I have had something of a revelation. I think I discovered that you can write about more characters, if you have fewer story-lines. To be honest, I wasn’t aware of this when I wrote the novel, but upon looking back at it, it appears to be true.

 

In my novel Drasmyr, there is really just one vaguely defined main story-line: namely the conflict between Lucian val Drasmyr and the wizards guild. There are a couple other lesser threads in the background (the rise of Korina, to name just one, and the fall of Clarissa, to name another), but each of those fits into the main thread in some fashion. Everything in the story relates to the main thread. And yet, I tell the story from a number of different perspectives. Sometimes, the perspectives are limited to just one or two sections, but throughout the book I bring you in to a number of different characters’ minds. Just to name a few: Lucian (of course), Clarissa, Korina, Coragan, Galladrin, Borak, Regecon, Ambrisia, Toreg, and Mathagarr. That’s ten different perspectives throughout a book that is only 360 pages (according to the kindle stats—450 if you go by the hardcopy in my binder) long. It shouldn’t work (And to be honest, there were a couple complaints, but most of them said that once you adapted, everything clicked into place). But I think it does work because there is only one real story line. It’s like ten different windows looking into the same room. Each has its own unique perspective, but the contents are largely the same and, therefore, do not entail the amount of confusion so many different perspectives would normally engender. There is a cohesive thrust to the story that you can follow regardless of who’s mind you are currently in.

 

Anyway, this brings me to my point: namely, a story needs focus. It needs direction. To that end, there is a balance between story threads and characters that a writer must strive for. I think many “literary” novels have a single main character and a single main thread; this gives you an extremely focused and compelling read. A lot of more modern fiction has a handful of characters, each one with its own story thread. It all makes sense, because the reader only has to juggle a few characters/threads at a time, and this gives you a less-focused, but more complex, and I think equally compelling read. Drasmyr, however, is different from both these patterns. I don’t know if anyone else has written anything with a similar pattern (like I said it was kind of a subconscious thing), but I think it is kind of intriguing to note that. It’s a unique mix of focus and complexity.

 

Anyway, those are my thoughts today.

Fantasy Writing: Number of Characters

I’ve read a lot of fantasy in my life. Nowadays, I’ve started making a focused effort to write and publish my own work. One issue that seems to pop up and bear investigation and discussion is the number of major characters in a piece of literature. Many modern fantasy stories have a sizable number of such major characters, so much so, that it is difficult to categorize any single one as the “main character;” in fact, I would argue that in many cases, the notion of a main character is subsiding and being replaced by the notion of  several major characters. Each character provides his or her own point of view and plotline. The author then weaves these all together to form a complete story, switching from one character and one point of view to another, and back and forth throughout, so that the whole resembles a kind of tapestry woven from the various plot threads. If done poorly, this can lead to confusion, or, if there are too many plot threads, this can lead to boredom as the reader fails to become invested in any of the characters. Masters of the craft, though, seem to have a knack for building up tension in each character’s plot thread, and switching point of view in such a way that the reader must continue reading, not only to find out what happens with the one character, but also with the next. Sometimes the plotlines blend for a time, as two or three major characters travel together or what-have-you, then separate. But my question is: is there a maximum number of characters that one can effectively have in a series?

 

I don’t want to give a specific number but I believe there is. The more major characters you add to a story, the more diluted the central plotline becomes. Often when I have read lengthy novels or trilogies, or what-have-you, and get to the end, I look back and am fascinated with how little each character actually accomplished over sometimes thousands of pages. They were driven from their castle, puttered around in a foreign city, then returned home with an army to retake the castle. And that’s all. The reason this happens is because of the number of major characters. Few novels these days tell a single story; instead, there are multiple sub-stories woven together. Obviously, if there are four sub-stories in an 800 page book, then each sub-story usually only gets about 200 pages or so. Clearly, the writer cannot accomplish as much in that shorter length. Hence, as I noted above, the characters are limited in what they can do, too.

 

One of my favorite series is the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan (now being completed by Brandon Sanderson after Robert Jordan’s death). It is, however, a testament to the problem of having too many major characters. I suppose, theoretically, Rand  Al’Thor as the Dragon Reborn is the main character, but that is only a technicality. All the major characters have consumed a comparable number of pages. And the result is a very LONG series. I think they’re at book fourteen, now. Hopefully, Brandon Sanderson will be able to finish it. But let’s just go through a list of the major characters (and this is just off the top of my head): Rand, Mat, Perrin, Egwene, Nynaeve, Elayne, Min, Aviendha… all right, that’s eight; I was expecting more, so maybe it’s not too bad. Except most of those demand equal or near equal time in the books. Is there any wonder why the series is so long? I enjoy the series. I really do. But because of the number of plotlines and major characters the series is so long that I’ll never sit down and read the entire bloody thing again. Which is a shame, because parts of it were really good. Well, the whole series was good. It’s just too much of a colossus to embark on again.

 

And that, I think, is a danger one risks when one writes. Characters have a tendency to multiply as you go along. The disciplined writer must learn to rein in his tendency to keep adding character upon character, and plotline upon plotline, or the end result might just be a literary mess.