How well do you know your characters before you write? Do you do any kind of character study or discover them as you go?
I used to start out with some basics–characteristics, jobs, background, appearances, etc. The basics. And then I would usually have an image or idea for the opening, and I would have the plot sketched out. But to be honest, I was never all that familiar with the characters. I needed to write about them to know them and I wouldn’t really feel like I knew them until about 30K in. That meant a lot of time rewriting the beginning of the book, and a lot of time make false jets into various directions and feeling my way through.
Then with The Turning Tide I had to change that. I did a bunch of character interviews so that I could get acquainted better with my main three. Otherwise, I couldn’t even begin. I knew a whole lot more about them at that point and was able to jump in and hit the ground running. Because so much depended on character relationships in that book, I had to really know them and how they got along and what made them tick right from the beginning.
What about secondary characters? How do you know when there are too many?
So I’m not GRRM. I can’t manage a cast of thousands. Nor am I Charles Dickens. So here’s a story about Bitter Night. I had too many characters. So many that my beta readers and my editor couldn’t keep track of them all. Part of the problem was that I didn’t’ differentiate them enough. Part of it was that I made them all too visible. Sometimes a walk on character can be nameless and generally faceless. Stock characters–the butler, the servant, and so forth. So I cut a few characters, but more importantly, I cut names and individuality for some of them. That made the others stand out more and their individuality become more noticeable.
So I guess the answer to too many is this–do they serve a useful purpose–preferably more than one? Are they well differentiated? Do they pile up on one another and fade together? Can you remember which one is which if they walk off the scene for half a page? Could you have one do the work of three?
My feeling is to reduce them wherever you can and make the ones you keep as important as you can.
What’s the average length of a chapter? Is there an average length? How do you know when to stop?
I used to try to keep all the chapter lengths the same. I worked hard at it. And it was pointless and stupid. I mean, why? The chapters have to be as long as they have to be. I’ll admit I tend to avoid short chapters. As a reader, I don’t like the choppiness of reading them. But now for the hard question. How do you know when to stop? I have to admit that for me it’s more of a feeling. My chapters revolve around moments/scenes. There’s an action component in each chapter and an emotional component. When I feel that both have been satisfied, I move on. I try to have pithy endings or slightly clifhangerish endings to lead people on to the next scene. I have a tendency to use one point of view per chapter so if I need to change points of view, I’ll change chapters.
In the end, there’s a feeling when things are done and adding anything else will be too much. I guess that’s something I’ve learned about my own stories and probably the doneness factor is peculiar to me. Everybody’s doneness is peculiar to themselves. It’s a feeling you have to learn to trust, as well as a skill you have develop so that you can trust it. If that’s not too circular in the land of logic.
What was the best advice you received that’s helped you become a successful writer?
I’m not sure I can remember anything specific. But I think the main thing is to write. Don’t stop. Persevere. I think I’ve seen that in example from successful writers. They write through thick and thin, bad and worse, ups and downs. Keep writing. And keep learning. Keep developing your craft. You can always be better. Keep striving.
Causes Diana Francis Supports
Primary Children's Hospital, Salt Lake City, UT:...