Thursday, October 10, 2019

Going Over The Numbers

Another quick post. Something that crossed my mind the other day. A little odd for a mostly writing blog, I know, but I wanted to talk about numbers for a few minutes.

I’ve rambled on here once or thrice about characters. Protagonists vs antagonists. Main characters vs.  supporting characters vs. background characters. Who should get named and who shouldn’t.

But it struck me that one thing that almost never comes up is, well, how many characters should I have. How many can my story really support? How many does my story need?

Yeah, that sounds a little odd but some stories need more characters than others. A murder mystery with two characters doesn’t leave a lot of room for red herrings—especially when one of them is dead on page two (thanks, Owen!). If I want to write a slasher or torture porn story, well, I’m going to need a few extra teenage campers to send off into the woods. Heck, think how much it could limit my sci-fi story not to have a red shirt or three that can head up to that ridge to look around.

The truth is, a lot of stories have certain minimums. Nothing’s written down, mind you—there’s no chart somewhere that says romance=8 characters, mystery=15, urban fantasy=23.  But, as I just hinted, I can start hitting some odd problems when my story’s understaffed. Suddenly my murderous alien monster seems a little less genetically superior because, well, it’s not managing to kill anyone. Because there’s nobody for it to kill.

One of my Saturday geekery movies a few weeks back had this problem. It was a slasher film. Nubile kids up at the lake smoking pot and having premarital sex (a recipe for sudden death). Thing is... there were only four of them. Two couples. Which... well, it didn’t give our murderous killer much to work with. He just kinda stood around for a lot of the movie. And then he had two “attacks” where he didn’t kill anybody. Or even wound them.

If I had to guess, based off my own experience with such things, the screenplay went through a lot of revisions and had a lot of cuts. A LOT of cuts. And one thing that went away was extra characters. All those people with just one or two lines, anybody who only had a single contribution toward advancing the plot, everyone who was only there to look good in a bathing suit or a wet t-shirt.   They all got trimmed and cut and combined and suddenly—again, this is my just my guess—this summer camp went from nine or ten counselors to only four. And, sure, each of these four had a lot to do, but they were just too rare for our mystery murderer to kill one of them off at the end of act one. Or even act two. The story couldn’t afford to lose a character, so the killer kept... not killing them.

Essentially, it was a slasher film where nobody got slashed.

Sometimes, weird as it sounds, we need that nubile teen in the wet t-shirt running through the woods. Okay, we don’t need her specifically, but we need somebody there because what happens to that person is setting a certain mood and letting us know some things up front. More characters raise the stakes and heighten the mystery. We need the red shirts, the lab assistants, and that guy who’s acting shifty but has a pretty solid alibi for the time of the murder because sometimes they really are advancing the plot.

And, yeah, I know this may sound a little odd to say because I’ve talked a lot here about paring away excess. I’ve made many posts about trimming the fat and figuring out if I really need this character or not. But this is one of those odd balance things we all need to figure out for ourselves. Which really sucks, I know. I wish that chart did exist so I could just tell you how many characters is the correct number for your story.

Y’see, Timmy, this is one of those things that just falls under experience and empathy. It can’t really be taught, it just needs to be figured out. And I’m going to need to figure it out every single time, because my mystery in the Hamptons is going to (hopefully) be different than my mystery in the Catskills and neither of them are like my Long Island mystery (which partly takes place at the club, so there are at least a dozen suspects. Three dozen if we’re going to consider staff). I need to figure out that perfect balance between enough characters to propel the plot forward, but not so many that I’m bogging it down.

It's tough, but it can be done. And you can do it.

I was going to say “count on it!” but that’s just way too cheesy.

Anyway...

This weekend is the Writers Coffeehouse at Dark Delicacies and also the Dystopian Book Club at the Last Bookstore. If you’re in the southern California area, maybe I’ll see you there for at least one of them.

Next time here... okay, look. Next time I'm probably going to do something quick. I'll explain why then. But if you're in the Dallas area, leave the 20th open.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Default Heroes

Just a few quick thoughts this week. Well, not super-quick. It’s a simple idea, but it might take a bit to explain.

As some of you may know, I have a habit of watching B-movies on the weekend, and often tweet out my thoughts and critiques of them while I build up my armies of little toy soldiers. I recently had a brief epiphany about a common problem they have, and it’s a problem I’ve also seen in books, comics... really, in pretty much every form of storytelling.  And it kinda grows off something I’ve talked about before.

A common problem in B-movies (but as I said, it shows up in all story formats) is trying to figure out who I’m supposed to be rooting for. The story gives us protagonists who are dull, completely unrelatable, offensive, or just plain annoying. Heck, sometimes it’s not an “or” situation but an “and”—the storytellers double down on just how bad a lead character that can have, on several levels.

And I find myself wondering how this happened. How did the storytellers settle on that person as their protagonist?  They don’t hit any of the benchmarks of being a hero—either in the protagonist or heroic sense. They’re not even a good character in a general sense. So why are we spending all our time with them?

Which is, I realized, the key problem.

When we end up with protagonists like this, it’s the storytellers falling back to default mode. We’re not making any changes or adjustments of our own, we’re just going to pick up the story and run with it as-is.  It’s factory-settings storytelling, so to speak.

For example, our protagonist should be the character we spend the most time with, right? Well, we’re spending the most time with, uhhhhh, that guy. So he must be our protagonist, right? Yeah, definitely our hero. I mean, there’ve been six chapters about him so far.

But there’s more to someone being my protagonist than just awkwardly being the center of attention. They have to be an active part of the story. Really, they need to be the active part, because if I’m focusing on them it’s their story.  And, seriously, why would I focus on them if there was another character doing more to drive the plot forward? If somebody else is doing more, it’s probably their story and I should really be focused on them.

And even that’s just the nuts and bolts structural stuff. There’s still all those stories where it’s assumed just because Wakko is our hero-by-default that everything he does is automatically, well, heroic. Every line of dialogue he speaks and every action he takes must be good because its the hero speaking/taking them. That’s the very definition of the hero, right—what they do is flawless and heroic!

But again... there’s more to it than that. To be a good hero, someone needs to be a good character. Sure, they can have some flaws, but they should have some strengths, too. As A. Lee Martinez once pointed out, there’s more to be being a good person than just not being a bad person. In the same way, there’s more to being the hero than just not being the person in the background.

Y’see Timmy, the default settings can work, but there’s nothing special about them. In fact, they’re usually not that great. Adequate at best.

And we all want to be better than adequate, right?

Oh, and hey-- next weekend is the Dystopian Bookclub (a.k.a. We’re All Gonna Die!) at the Last Bookstore in LA. We’re reading Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler, and if you start soon you could have it done in time to join us for wine and snacks and interesting discussion.

Next time, I want to go over some numbers with you.

Until then... go write.