Getting to Know You – Introducing Characters to the Reader
I watched the recent Umbara arc on The Clone Wars with eager anticipation. Last season, the Mortis and Nightsisters arcs were some of the best storytelling I’ve seen. I was curious to see how the clone-centric arc would play out, because they would be relying on one basic character model – the multiple clone interpretations as envisioned by the animators – to carry the story. I have a lot of faith in the creative team, so it wasn’t a matter of if they could do it, but rather how.
Jumping from the mainstays like Anakin, Ahsoka, Obi-Wan, and Padmé created an interesting dynamic. How do they get the viewers up to speed and knowledgeable with characters who look and talk very much alike? Will the viewers, not all of whom have encyclopedic minds, be able to connect with that many characters quickly enough? Dee Bradley Baker and the animators did a great job of providing cues vocally and visually: Tup has a teardrop, Jesse the Imperial logo emblazoned across his head, Fives the small numeral 5 tattooed on his right temple, and so on.
I also noticed that these episodes borrowed a storytelling technique from A New Hope, in that we rarely see all the clones at once, but rather each scene has only two or three clones at a time as the story progresses. This ties back to a point I discussed last November in one of my earliest blogs, where I noted that in my experience, scenes are easier to write when the number of parties involved is minimized. Conversely, scenes tend to become exponentially more difficult for the writer and the reader as more characters are inserted into the situation. I’ve thought about this more than I’d care to admit as I started my novel. How do I drop people into a universe of my own design, make it compelling enough to stay, yet not overwhelm the reader with characters and world-building?
Overwhelmed is pretty much how I felt when I read the first scene with the mentally unstable Force-sensitive clones in Riptide earlier this month. I think it was the authorial intention – to throw the reader into the fray. Too much too soon required that I put the book down, though; I felt like I needed a dry-erase board to identify all the characters introduced from the clone group. There were twelve, or maybe thirteen, but if I have to count over six or seven – especially if we’re talking clones – I become dazed and confused. Ultimately the biggest problem for me ended up being that I didn’t connect with any of those characters, and if I’m going to pick up a book and read it I want to connect with the characters. Obviously Riptide and the Umbaran arc are different kinds of stories, but what I took away from comparing them was that I preferred the style of having a little more groundwork laid out. Rex and Fives having existing backstory allowed me to take an emotional journey with them across Umbara.
Dave Filoni taught a storyboarding seminar at Celebration V, and I learned a lot from it. Interestingly enough when he explained how to arrange camera shots, he first taught it using two characters, then illustrated how it becomes increasingly harder as more characters are added to a scene. I’ve just finished writing a scene with five characters in a conference room; it’s taken me longer than I would have liked, but it’s important to the story because it introduces two of the three planetary governments. I had to be very careful how to structure the conversation, because I didn’t want the conversation bouncing around. I gnashed my teeth for a few days because Utara Fireheart refused to talk at one point, until I realized she was trying to tell me something – that’s what she would do in that situation. I also concluded that most of the conference room conversation would be apparent to the reader who paid attention earlier in the book. So instead of doing the conversation in its entirety, then a recap with Utara’s boss, I cut off the conversation in the conference room scene and used the recap between just two characters to succinctly whittle down what was said.
Wynde has taken a lot of thought, outlining, and pounding my head on the desk to sketch out what I thought would work. Back in my early fanfic days I would have written the entire conference scene and the full recap scene, too. The more stories I wrote the more I began to understand it’s unnecessary, and the goal is to pack as much characterization and story into the pages without overwhelming the reader, and to be subtle yet clear, precise yet indeterminate. In other words, there’s a fine line to walk and if you want to learn how to write, there’s only one way to do it – write.
Backing up to the beginning of my novel, this was the first time I had started a full-length story where no one knew the characters. It’s literally taken every tool I’ve picked up as writer to make it work. I kept two principal goals in mind for the opening chapters. First, establish the series’ heroine, Vespa Wynde, and her core group of friends in a way that connected with readers. I’ve actually created quite a few original characters back in the day who some of my readers still talk about, so I’ve had a little practice. Second, start with a bang. By way of comparison, I really liked the abrupt opening of Riptide, that the reader is dropped into the insanity. So when I read the opening of the book, and that worked well, it helped solidify my storytelling choice. Here’s what I did in Wynde’s opening chapters to try to engage the reader in the story and the characters.
I decided to literally start with a bang. If you’ve read the trailer, you’ll remember this visual:
INT. CABANA BEDROOM – NIGHT
In her bed, VESPA WYNDE’s eyes pop open an instant before the roof of her cabana implodes in a brilliant burst of fire.
EXT. BEACH CABANAS – NIGHT
From the perspective of a person standing on the beach and gazing down its curved length, cabanas atop stilts dot the shallow waters of a sandy ocean shoreline. Suddenly the starry sky and the beach erupt with dozens of simultaneous fiery explosions.
I start with Vespa in the midst of explosive chaos, and the things she does in that moment will immediately begin to build a picture of who she is. Late in the first chapter I introduce Character 2. In the next scene I introduce two more characters, but one is unconscious and therefore minimizes the problem of too many people in one conversation. I quickly revert back to just Vespa and Character 2, then kept weaving in other characters from there as the novel progresses. Except for a couple of instances, including the conference room scene I mentioned, the reader will not be confronted with more than three characters who speak in one scene, and even then I try to make it as brief as possible. At the same time, I want the story to move along with pace; hence the bruised forehead and outlining. Based on feedback from the few people who have read Act One, I think what I’ve mapped out for my novel works. Only time and publishing it will tell, though.
I arrived at this method by paying close attention to what had and hadn’t worked for me as a reader, and through trial and error on my own. I’ve encountered a couple of exceptions to my rule of thumb that I thought I’d point out. Even with large Dramatis Personae lists, the X-wing books generally only show a pair of characters or a single character in a scene, or a series of characters will drift in and out around the point of view character. In Starfighters of Adumar, however, we often see all four main characters used in a scene, but it works well. The trick is that the characters are each so identifiable by their dialogue that the reader knows who’s saying what, even without a dialogue tag. Hobbie is the dour pessimist, Janson the cut-up, Wedge the wise and daring leader, and Tycho the noble tactician. Similarly, when reading Darth Plagueis I noted one great example of a multi-character scene, as well – but that discussion will have to wait. Luceno, like Allston, has really refined his writing craft; it’s amazing how clever he can be with words on a page to set characters and scenes.
Hopefully some day my characters will resonate and be identifiable simply for what they say. For now, it’s back to writing, practicing, and honing my skills. Look for the first complete chapter of Wynde coming soon at TriciaBarr.com, followed regularly by new chapters.
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