All About Multiple Characters

Long time followers of my blog know that I am a proponent of singular protagonists. In one of my earliest blog posts, Common Writing Styles That Cause ProblemsI talked about several issues involved in having too many protagonists. I still believe everything I said back then, but the fact is, some stories do call for several main characters, and not telling my readers how to correctly write them isn’t serving anyone. Should you choose to take your story in this direction, here are some tips for keeping things clear and elegant--

Write As Few Protagonists As Possible

Just because your story necessitates several plotlines doesn’t mean you should just run free with it. Having ten protagonists instead of five is not just twice as confusing. Believe me.


Pick Your Tense Carefully

Beware of using different tenses for different characters. Only too often, writers go into projects thinking, “Well, Ralph is the main character, so he can be first person as long as the others are in third”, only to discover that other protagonists become more important as the story progresses, or that the readers are confused by the sudden changes in tense from chapter to chapter. Be careful. Multiple characters can be confusing enough!


Differentiate Between Your Characters

I understand that making every character a complex individual is a lot harder in multiple viewpoint novels, so I’ve come up with a very simple piece of advice for flat or copycat characters: if it’s too hard to give a character a unique sense of self, remove that character. There. That simplifies things.


Make Sure They Have STRONG Connections With Each Other

Back when I was still doing reader reviews, I ripped Cloud Atlas a new one. The writing wasn’t the problem, but rather, the incredibly weak connection between the characters. It seemed to me as if they existed, not only in different time periods, but in different worlds. Luisa Rey is in a campy, 1950s-style detective story, where commedia dell'arte character archetypes are fully acceptable, but Robert Frobisher is in a fully realistic story that takes place in the early thirties. These two people, apart from the fact that they are members of the human race, quite literally have nothing in common.


Read Good Fiction With Multiple Points of View

It is always helpful to read stories that are told in a similar way to what you want to write. If you want to write about multiple characters in a first person perspective (God forbid), read As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. If not, possibly consider Dune by Frank Herbert. Don’t stop there either! Get a grasp on what you’re looking for before you begin.


Thoroughly Plan Scenes Where Characters Meet

If Gregory and Ruth are both main characters, whose perspective will you write from when they meet in the park under the glow of fireflies? Gregory’s? Ruth’s? Third limited on one character? Perhaps a neutral or omniscient third? If you are going to have characters meet throughout the course of your story, make sure to put in your work.


Carry Over Emotions

Nobody will ever advise you not to end a chapter on a cliffhanger, but it can be rather annoying to a reader when chapter 13 ends with John on his back in an alley with a knife wound in his abdomen, and chapter 14 begins with Sussie wondering if Matt, the cute boy sitting next to her in English class, is going to ask her to prom. It’s fine if this happens every once in awhile - building up a sense of urgency can be good… but, in general, try to stoke the emotional flames of the previous chapter in any way you can. You don’t want to have to start each chapter from emotional ground zero.


All this said, don’t tell a story from multiple perspectives unless that’s the way the story is screaming to be told (Game of Thrones comes to mind). Despite a few exceptions, the less characters there are in a piece, the greater the focus is on the characters that remain. 

All About Flashbacks

We all know that in the last fifty years or so, flashbacks have run rampant. Sometimes they are used well, but most of the time they break the flow of a story. Books like How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Fray recommend using flashbacks “only when you have to,” but they rarely go into specifics on why flashbacks can be so irritating for readers. On that note, this article has a dual purpose. The first is to explain the problems inherent in using flashbacks, and the second is to give you a few ways to minimize them in your writing. Let’s begin.

The problem with flashbacks isn’t as clear cut as some writers may believe. I personally avoid them entirely in my writing, but it’s not the concept of the flashback so much as the way they are often executed that causes the trouble. Here are a few EXTREMELY common tendencies that, if you are going to come across as a professional, need to be avoided entirely.

1) Having Your Character Enter Flashbacks Too Often

This is just unrealistic. While the best plots are character based and not action based, there should always be some kind of action in the lives of your characters – they are better, smarter or just different than the average people (or else why are we reading about them?!) So, in the hectic life of these other-beings, how do they have time to allow the smell of a flower to transport them back to a time when they were bouncing on their father’s knee? If it happens once, okay, fine… but I have read and edited books where it happens hundreds of times! This brings us directly into the next point.

2) Unrealistic Memory Sequences

“Being punched in the face brought me back to the time when…” Sound ridiculous? This kind of stuff happens all the time. Author’s first novels especially are filled with people running away from serial killers who, simply because of the color of the street, are transported to a business meeting they had two years ago. THIS DOESN’T HAPPEN. Your writing should mimic reality, and in reality, when you are fighting for your life, you simply don’t care about anything except the knife in your assailant’s hand and whether or not you are going to die.

3) Breaking Action Scenes

Flashbacks at their best, serve to show back-story. When you are in the middle of an action sequence, whether it be physical action or emotional action, that’s the only story you should be focusing on. Simply put, your reader doesn’t care why your character is in that position – at least not until much later. What they want is to see how it turns out. They want you to make them feel something: fear, shock, anger, sadness… When you set up a sequence with resonance, and then pull away to explain why your character is there, it’s the equivalent of handing and ice cream cone to a child and then quickly taking it away and saying, “Don’t worry. You’ll get this back later.” As you can probably imagine, it doesn’t create any positive emotions.

But what about movies? Lots of movies begin with a crazy action sequence. A man in a cashier’s uniform is driving a car. Suddenly, a black van cuts him off and he slams on the breaks! Five or Six men jump out and grab him, abducting him in front of 100+ eyewitnesses. The police try to pursue, but the van does some kind of daring maneuver and they’ve abducted the man. THEN, we begin the movie with a close-up of our seemingly-average-Joe cashier as he helps somebody buy a pair of pants at the local clothing store. All in all, this is a fairly strong sequence, but the action scene itself is still ruined. Think about it. Either a) We find out that Joe is actually an ex-marine who was placed on a secret mission to kill a foreign political leader (Not Kim Jong-un guys, nobody freak out.) In this scenario, the sequence was all smoke. We used a reverse flashback to give a scene that wouldn’t have been shocking the element of surprise and by the time we get to its actual place in film, that game has been played already; or b) It would have been surprising, but instead of having a shocking turn of events, the viewers of this imaginary movie are now actively trying to find out why Joe was in this situation. Either way, by the time we get to that sequence, it’s been played out. Flashbacks destroy the tension of action sequences. That’s just the way it is.

4) Using Flashbacks Too Early

I recently read For Whom The Bell Tolls by Earnest Hemmingway, and while it was a wonderfully written novel in many ways, the opening felt very weak. In the very first chapter, about three pages in, we flashback a week earlier to the events that brought our main character, Robert Jordan, to the heart of the Spanish Civil War. Most readers, myself included, probably wouldn’t have learned the character’s first name three pages in, so the question is: Why should we care? Flashbacks exist to bring out character traits and show vital information that may have been left out along the way. In essence, a flashback serves to answer questions. Why is a character acting a certain way? Where did Ned get that bazooka from? If you start flashing back in your first two or three chapters, there simply aren’t enough questions that readers need answered. What’s more, if there are, you are almost always answering them too quickly! You want your readers dying to know something before you reveal it to them. If you answer their questions before they’ve even thought of them, you aren’t leaving very many places of tension!

5) Throwing Flashbacks at Your Character

In many first time novels, flashbacks can come across like a character obstacle. Oftentimes, this is not what the writer intended. A common fallacy concerning flashbacks is that characters have to be in the experience themselves. Back to the first example, if the smell of a flower transports your character back in time, and he is living the memory over again, this can make your character appear to have mental problems! It is as if they are incapable of living in the present moment. If you are going to use flashbacks, it’s best to use them casually. Here is an example.

“The last time John ate an orange he was back in Napa with his family. He wasn’t yet eight years old and his sister…”

In this example, even though the action has shifted to the past, the reader isn’t jarred by the sudden explosion of prose born from something as simple as an orange.


So how do you avoid flashbacks?

1) Work the Back-Story in Using Dialogue

It might be harder, but it’s far more elegant. Of course, I’m not suggesting you do exposition:

“Ted, how’d you get that scar?”

“This? Well, I got this when I was fighting in Vietnam. Yes, I may look like a normal guy, but I have some hidden demons...”

If this is the best you can do, I recommend sticking with flashbacks! That said, if you just keep your character’s past in mind, you’ll be surprised how many times it comes out in your writing. Maybe one of his military buddies visits the town? Maybe his alcoholic grandfather gives him a tough time about how he only served 15 years in the army when his other sons are both Generals by now. There are many ways to bring out these kinds of revelations without resorting to flashbacks, and your readers will be thankful for it!

2) Work the Back-Story in Using Description

If your novel is written in the First Person, this is incredibly easy. First person is already in the head of the character, so it actually takes less effort to do it this way than to use a flashback!

“The store clerk looked at me with more spite that a Viet-cong soldier. If I’d had my M16 with me, there’d have been clean up on three isles.”

In third person, it’s a lot easier to use action.

3) Action

Let’s imagine a mugger jumps our Vet in the street. This is a great opportunity for dramatic, exceedingly interesting character development. What if, when the mugger attacks, he immediately disarms him, takes him to the ground and snaps his arm in three places? Maybe we didn’t specifically say that this guy has military training, but I guarantee you that your readers will realize that there’s something out of the norm going on!

4) Simply Don’t Explain!

Your readers don’t need to know everything. If there are things they don’t know about your character, FANTASTIC! Think about your best friend. You probably know him or her very well. Do you know everything about them? Of course not! People are complex. Why would you want your characters to be any different? I personally love it when authors entice their readers and then don’t ever go back to fill in the blanks.

“You know, this reminds me of that one time at Lake Powell…”

“Yeah, I know what you mean…”

Then go off and talk about something else entirely! Wonderful. Never force your dialogue to reveal things to the readers. If both Jack and Peggy know exactly what happened at Lake Powell, don’t explain it. This is a fantastic trick to add realism, but keep in mind it should only be used for fairly minor plot points such as the one above. If you spend half a novel talking about something, you’ve effectively made a promise to wrap it up. If after that, it just kind of drops off and we never hear about it again, you’ve broken the trust of your readers.


Writing Prompt

Whatever your choices regarding flashbacks, you might as well learn to write them correctly! Write 200 words on a character in a normal setting, then ELEGANTLY flashback for another 500-800 words. As always, if send it to me via the contact tab, I'll edit it for free!

Problems In Reality-Based Fiction

For this blog post, I'd like to focus on fiction based on true events. I’m not referring specifically to memoir here, or even completed works, just fiction – be it a scene drawn from one’s own life or a Proustian exploration held together through memory. It’s here where I see many authors run into issues. Whatever your interest is in writing, you’ve probably heard of the idea that the best fiction comes from our experiences. In a way, this is absolutely true. In my own works, I’ve drawn from my life time and time again. In fact, it was my own philosophical ponderings that served as the inspiration for Tiny Instruments… but in my time as an avid reader and an active editor, I’ve seen several disturbing new tendencies develop through a misapplication of this idea, and I’d like to take a moment to discuss them, so my readers don’t make the same mistakes in their own writing.

                1) Basing The Entire Plot Of A Novel/Screenplay Around Your life

Okay, this doesn’t apply to memoir because that’s the very thing that makes it memoir, but I can’t be the only person who has noticed the surprising number of “fiction” novels and especially screenplays revolving around starving writers who can’t get a break. They mope around, putting their heart and souls into their work, all the while never receiving any credit. By the end of the novel/screenplay, the under-appreciated writer’s very own novel or screenplay is finally published or made into a movie… I’m sorry if you’ve written something like this. If you have, maybe it’s really great – a glorious close-up on what it’s like to be a writer in the modern era… but more than likely, you’ve fallen into the trap of writing exactly what you know instead of using your experiences as inspiration to write something better.

                2) Assuming People Will Know What’s Real And What’s Not

Just because it happened doesn’t mean it has a place in your story. It’s nice to use real events to give your story authenticity, but fiction is not the same as reality. Sometimes, putting in what actually happened can make a story feel fake! It can also change the tempo of your story which, if done too abruptly, can be very jarring for your readers! It is your responsibility to uphold the structure of your story. When you inject reality into it, sometimes it works perfectly, and sometimes it doesn’t. Readers are not equipped with a reality radar. If your reality infusions ruin the flow of your story, most of your readers won’t know why it doesn’t work, just that it doesn’t.

                3) Insisting That You Know Better Than Your Readers

This one sounds obvious, but there are a surprising amount of new writers who think that, just because it’s real, it isn’t subject to the same rules as the rest of literature. This point reminds me of a girl I once knew in college who had me edit her play. She was from Norway, and it was about the shocking suicide rates over there. In her play, she had a scene where a kid pushes her mother down, runs into the other room, locks the door, and slits her wrists. The mother comes in and tries to help her, but the girl just keeps pushing her off until she bleeds out… I told her that this scene could be much more powerful with a few minor tweaks – like if she locked the door and barricaded it so her mother couldn’t get in, but the author refused to change it saying “that’s the way it really happened!” In this case, the author’s work was loosely based on life in most other parts, and not altogether based on truth like memoir. The scene in question was based on a newspaper article she'd read in high school, but for some reason, she refused to change it. Eventually, as it was in my class, we all had our plays staged for us. The goal of the performance was to see our work presented in order to figure out how the words we’d put on paper translated to the stage. After her play was put on, during the comments section afterward, everybody started rounding on her. They said things like “It didn’t feel real”, “Why didn’t the mother just call the police?”, “Someone wouldn’t want to put their own mother through that kind of pain,” et cetera… And the Norwegian exchange student just stood there listening to everything, shaking her head, saying “but that’s the way it happened! It's real!!” The moral of this story being, you might have captured word-for-word what your mother said that one time, but it doesn’t matter. Ironically, this is all the more important in memoir because if it comes off poorly, you’ll lose credibility in your story – and when it comes to anything officially based on reality, that’s the last thing you want. Am I recommending you change what your mother said? ABSOLUTELY NOT. In memoir, you cannot lie. You can however omit, summarize what she said, or simply write a description of the fight you two had. Outside of memoir, there are no excuses for dialogue that doesn’t work or moments where your leads do things outside of character. Remember, people do things outside of their own character all the time. Characters do not.

The tendency to “write what you know” is a good one, but as an author, you are responsible for knowing its limits. Your life is always present in your work, whether you want it to be or not. The best work however, uses life as inspiration, not a crutch.


Writing Prompt

Write 500-1000 words about an event in your own life, and then write 100-150 words on what kind of character the event might apply to. Send your completed assignment to my email through the contact tab on the website and I'll edit it for free!