The Old Writer Who Lived in a Shoe

On April 11, 2015, capng wrote, What if you have too many characters? My novel takes place on a ship, with the MC being the captain, and while I have all the secondary characters developed and planned out, I feel like there are too many to give them the page time they deserve. Any ideas, please?

Kenzi Parsons answered, I just started reading “The Hound of Rowan” Series (which everyone should read–it’s amazing!!), which has tons of characters. However, the author keeps the reader from getting confused or losing track of characters by bringing them up when they’re needed, or keeping them in the background. Even with only a few interactions, those moments are enough to solidify the characters so that when they go “back on the shelf” (not being used at the current scene), the reader still knows they’re there and isn’t surprised when they are pulled back out again once they are needed. Basically, you only need a few good interactions to get the characters known to the audience. If they’re fleshed out and unique, the reader won’t confuse them and will keep them in the back of their minds. Even one interaction is really all it takes.

My first thought is to wonder whether all these characters are needed. A ship is such a temptation to imagine characters! The crew, the passengers, a stowaway or two,  the pirates who will board the ship, the pirates’ prisoners. They all have their own stories. Who can resist? Sadly, just because we invent characters and get drawn in by our own brilliance doesn’t mean they all belong in our story.

If not in every book I’ve written, then in almost every one, I’ve had to give up complexity for the sake of a coherent plot. In early drafts of Fairest, for example, I gave Queen Ivi a mother and a brother. The mother’s character came from Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice–superficial, grasping, less than clever–and I planned for her to account for Ivi’s behavior. The brother, decent but moody, was to be a love interest for Aza. But they slowed down my story, as did my many scenes between Ivi and Skulni. (This was in the third-person omniscient version.) Ivi fascinated me, and I had fun exploring her insecurities and Skulni’s ways of exploiting them. The story grew, mushroomed, put out tentacles, became unwieldy. Finally I had to sharpen my machete and chop. The mother and brother landed on the cutting room floor, and, most painful of all, I had to simplify Ivi and Skulni.

When I think about it, I’m still sad about the loss. Maybe a more accomplished writer could have woven in all the characters and all the scenes and made them work. On the other hand, I still have both in earlier drafts, and–maybe this is weird–but I think the material I deleted remains in a ghostly way and adds depth to my story.

Also on the plus side, I like a plot that moves along. Extraneous bits seem self-indulgent. I can get away with a little extra embroidery, if it’s charming or funny or emotionally rich, but not a lot.

In capng’s story, we need to think about what our Captain MC’s problem is and who’s needed to help him and hinder him. If we’ve dreamed up a cast of characters, we have a treasure trove to dip into. We reread our pages of character descriptions. Who will be useful? How? When we choose the ones we need, their personalities help shape the progress and reversals that make up our plot.

The ones who are left over, whose traits and back stories cry out irresistibly to us can get their own separate stories, can form the Ship trilogy or seven-book series.

When we’re writing any story–when, for example, our MC arrives in a new place, say, a castle, where many characters live, we can try not to name the minor ones. If we have to stick with one through a few paragraphs or pages, we can pick one of the very few traits we’ve given him to refer to him, like we can call him the tall man. It’s kind of like the Thanksgiving turkey, which I never name, because I don’t want to be tempted to imagine its life before my oven. A big vegetable-eater, I don’t name the carrot I’m about to chomp down on, either. And, as much as possible, we can avoid naming characters we’re not going to have a story relationship with, either. Sometimes we have to, when repetition of the trait becomes awkward. But once we’ve named a character we’ve burdened the reader a little. She thinks, Am I going to have to pay to attention to this Maximilian and remember his name and who he is?

Many writers start with a character and what he wants and grow the plot from there. I generally begin with an idea and dream up characters who’ll work as a vehicle for it. So far, I’ve never started with a bunch of characters clamoring for a story. Might be fun, though, and if I did, I’d start by looking for a unifying problem. Maybe I’d have seven MCs instead of one–or more than seven. I think of Bat 6 by Virginia Euwer Wolff, which has–count ‘em!–twenty-one first-person narrators. However, the story has a strong and simple plot, organized around a girls’ softball league playoff. It has strong themes: prejudice, war, guilt. A wonderful book, appropriate for upper elementary school kids and up.

If our plot does call for a big cast, Kenzi Parson’s advice is excellent. We want our minor players to be memorable so they’ll be, yes, remembered. We can give them a speech mannerism, for example. As soon as Uri says, “…doo wickety,” he returns to life for the reader. Or he can have a visible trait: wild hair or extreme fashion preferences or big gestures. When this characteristic pops up, the reader knows him. He can always make our MC laugh, or he can always say the wrong thing. But, if Uri is a minor character, no matter how much we love him, no matter how much we know about him, we have to keep it simple or he may derail our story.

We can use setting to separate characters. You know how we recognize real people by place, and how confusing it can be when they show up in the wrong spot? In the supermarket we recognize the cashier who moves his line along faster than anyone else, but if we see him walking his dog in the park, he just looks familiar and he drives us crazy because we can’t remember who he is. In Fairest again, there’s the library-keeper, and I don’t let him leave his area. When Aza goes to the library, he’s there, and he rises right up in the reader’s mind. We can use that to help our readers. Uli, say, grooms the horses at the riding academy. The reader associates him with the stable. In the ship story, a certain character can keep to her stateroom. Our MC goes in, and there she is.

Or one minor character may never appear unless a particular major one is present. Uri’s grandmother may never be in the story unless Uri is in the scene. When Uri is there and an old lady comes along, the reader remembers the grandmother.

Or a minor character may show up when there’s a certain kind of action afoot. Suppose there’s an angry minor character, and there’s a mutiny. This angry fellow appears only to stoke the other characters’ fury. Oh, there he is, the reader thinks. I know him. We’re in for an argument.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Mysteries often demand a big cast. Try one on a ship. The steward brings the first mate his morning coffee and finds him dead at the rudder and the ship far off course. Write the story and solve the mystery. If this is a cruise ship, for example, you’ll need to find a way to narrow the number of suspects.

∙ Choose six secondary characters from your finished stories or story fragments and find an idea that will work for all of them. Then put them together in a story.

∙ Pick six secondary characters from books you love and put them together in a new story.

∙ Use some or all of these fairy tale characters in a story: the hunter from “Snow White”; the third youngest dancing princess; the enchanted prince who is her dance partner; the genie of the ring from “Aladdin”; the miller in “Rumpelstiltskin”; Little Red Riding Hood herself; the North Wind in “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” (one of my favorite fairy tales); and the farmer’s wife in the nursery song, “Three Blind Mice.”

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. “In the supermarket we recognize the cashier who moves his line along faster than anyone else, but if we see him walking his dog in the park, he just looks familiar and he drives us crazy because we can’t remember who he is.”

    You mean this is normal, not just some weird problem I’ve got? Thank you!

    Sorry to go off-topic on the first post. I’m just so relieved!

    • Oh everybody does this. Today I went into work wearing contacts instead of glasses and normal clothes instead of a uniform. My coworkers welcomed me like a customer until one of them realized who I was.

      • Definitely something I do too! I work in retail, and it’s maddening to recognize a customer and not know why. But the instant you connect them to the library or store or church or wherever you know them from, it’s an aha moment.

        Anyway, Mrs. Levine, thank you for this post! I have the problem of too many characters coming up in a book I’ll be rewriting. The families of my two MCs come along for the adventure, which means moving eleven characters around rather than a pair. Yikes. Separating them to different locations will definitely help!

  2. Also off topic but I just started a story and I’ve hit a bit of a bump. I have this character who starts out the story in a wheelchair and by the end is taking his first steps and I’m kind of wondering if it’s too cliche, or maybe even a little bit offensive. The kid lives this pretty grim existence ever since whatever happened to him(I’m not really sure what that is yet), so he creates this really cool fantasy world where he is an acrobat. His parents work long hours and his school doesn’t really have a lot of facilities for him, and no one knows how to react to his condition. Basically there are going to be two parallel threads, one with a sad kid, another with a colorful performer, and that will (hopefully) become evident to the reader over time(like the acrobat does some cool performance, and the boy takes his first steps).First of all is a child in a wheelchair learning to walk tired? Also, (I’m going to put this very badly) I’ve thought about what I’m planning to put for the poor kid’s interactions with the real world throughout the story ( people pity him, are uncomfortable, ignore him and focus on his condition) and I’m wondering if it defeats the purpose of the story to let him walk again. I mean, is it really a good message for the story if the kid gets back and then everyone treats him normally again? Isn’t that saying, just be normal and then everything will be fine? What if you can’t be normal? Sorry for going around in circles but I hope you get what I was trying to say.

    • If you write the story in a new and exciting way, then the idea isn’t cliche. The story might be offensive to some people, but many stories people have found offensive have become classics (To Kill a Mockingbird, for example), and you can’t cater to everyone’s sensibilities. When you let the boy walk at the end you can show how people are judgemental when a person has a handicap, and maybe the boy can start trying to remedy this. If you think that it defeats your story’s purpose, then maybe the boy had to get an operation that left him with a robotic ankle or some other handicap that still causes people to be uncomfortable. You can have the boy point out that to him, having a wheelchair is normal, and he shouldn’t have to conform to other people’s idea of normal.

    • Maybe you could have someone start treating him normally before he starts to get better, and than use that to help him get determined to walk again.

      I wish I could tell you what makes the difference between a cliche feel and an original feel, because it’s something I face too. Thinking of The Secret Garden, which might be one of the oldest wheelchair-to-walking stories, one thing that stands out to to me is how well developed the characters are.

      While I was writing my now “finished” story, I read several books with the same basic concept as mine: kids on their own in hiding, trying to get or keep their families together. I read them carefully and saw how they were different from mine, and why. That helped me see my story more clearly, and I strengthened those unique aspects further.

      I think you have to take what you’ve got and give it your absolute best and make it so much your own story that new stuff and a new feel starts showing up. Somehow, writing that last sentence made me think of spinning straw into gold! I don’t think what I wrote is still straw, but I’m not a good enough judge to tell if it’s gold or something in between. :/

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        I agree with what’s been said. Originality comes in how you tell a story. However, if YOU feel the direction you’re taking is a tired one, you might speculate about where else you might take the story. As I’ve said many times, I like to list possibilities.

    • (Bit of background- I have Cerebral Palsy and use a wheelchair.)

      Please, please don’t think of your character as “that poor kid.” He’s still whoever he was before whatever happened to him, and if he thinks of HIMSELF as “that poor kid,” he’ll be no fun to read about.

      I love stories with disabled characters who are people first, and also have a disability. What’s your character like, other than his disability?

      The fantasy world (circus?) sounds like it could be a lot of fun. Do things in that world overlap with things in ours?

      About the cure: A lot will depend on what your character’s disability is, and why it goes away. If the character just magically gets better because the author wants them to, that’s called “Miracle Cure Plot.” The thing that offends a lot of readers (including me) is if a character is somehow made “normal” as a reward for their virtue or something like that.

      OTOH, I love The Secret Garden, maybe because it’s made clear that Colin doesn’t actually have anything physically wrong with him, except deconditioning.

      Anyway, I have a pretty good medical background for a layperson, and some experience with being a disabled person, so if you have questions on either count, feel free to ask.

      • I’ve made my character’s life pretty dreary just as a juxtaposition for the other part of the story, so his being a poor kid in my mind has very little to with his disability, but I think I’ve got to stop thinking like that or I might accidentally impress my views upon him.
        My character’s only about 8-9, another fun part, and he lives a large part of his life in said fantasy world, which one of the things he loves talking about, but his parents find a little unnatural. He’s very good at maths, although he has trouble on timed assessments and often doesn’t pay attention, so his teachers find him sweet and docile, but kind of dumb. However, he does well in a weekly problem solving class that the math teacher holds to prep for a school-wide competition. He’s blond, and he’s got kind of a vivid sense of fashion, which his mother, who works at a dry cleaner and tailor, encourages. Other kids gravitate towards his stories and his abilities at freeze tag (both in and out of the wheelchair).
        Events in the kid’s life have technicolor counterparts in the circus.
        I haven’t actually thought much about what will happen to the kid, I’m still in the first few pages and I haven’t needed an explanation yet. I know what I want from the injury, which is for something serious to happen that everyone is shaken by, but with a good chance of full recover in a not-too -short amount of time. I’ve also thought about the suggestion someone made of giving him a prosthetic. Either way, he isn’t particularly noble or virtuous, in fact he’s kind of whiny, and he does exploit his condition once or twice so hopefully I”m not in danger of Miracle Cure. I have no medical experience, I’m just a teenager, so I’ve got to do some more research to find out what happened to him

    • Jenalyn Barton says:

      Here’s one of my favorite quotes from C.S. Lewis about being original: “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

    • I think whether it will be offensive depends a lot on why he’s in the wheelchair. For example, if it’s for a permanent disorder like paralysis or a genetic disorder and it’s cured by some Miracle Cure, as Melissa Mead said, it might be a little offensive. However, I have a friend who is currently in a wheelchair because she tore her ACL. If it’s an injury like this that likely will heal, it’s probably fine. Also, I don’t think your story sounds cliche!

      • Oh, I knew a girl who tore a ligament in her leg and she said it was so painful! She had to use a cane for three weeks and sort of hopped around for another few.

    • Unsocializedhomeschooler says:

      I don’t think your story sounds cliche–Based on your description, if I saw this at a bookstore I’d definitely snap it up!

      Someone once told me that when you write a story, the story and characters should come first and the moral last. Basically, the message of the story might only appear after you’ve written the story and focused on the characters.

      If I were you I wouldn’t worry about whether or not the ending defeats the purpose of the story. The purpose of the story is that it’s a good story with good characters and that you had a fun time writing it. If you focus on your story first, the moral will follow.

    • Thanks to everyone who replied, I read them all and I think I’m just going to focus on writing the story and trying to make it as good as possible and hopefully that will keep it original and exciting.

  3. I haven’t read Bat 6, but I’m guessing it works because most or all of the characters are teammates. If characters are in groups they’re easy to remember. I was counting characters and thought I had too many in one story, and then I realized all but three of them were connected in families.
    On the subject of naming food: I had a pet cabbage when I was nine. I wasn’t sure if it was a boy cabbage or a girl cabbage, so I named it Leslie. I used to sit out in the garden and sing to it because I’d heard that helps plants grow.
    And then my family killed Leslie and devoured its remains.

  4. This post is timely for me. Thanks Gail!
    I’m trying to clean up my “finished” manuscript further, and in the process, I started to list all the named characters. I have 30 in the first five chapters. Ouch. Most of them are in family groups, like Erica Eliza said, so that does help. But a bunch of them are one-time mentions and I think I could do like you said about not naming them. I actually did that with one character last week, and I was surprised how painless it turned out. I found that by removing her name, I took away the hint of a subplot, and the need for another scene later on to conclude that tiny subplot.

  5. I just finished reading Pillars of the Earth and is sequel, and this post makes me think about that. If you haven’t read it, a lot of both books take place at a monastery and later a nunnery. As you can imagine, there is a multitude of possibilities for characters. Of course we don’t meet each one, but we sure do meet more than a few. It was sometimes hard to keep track, but the way Follett kept them straight was by their occupation. If I couldn’t remember who Pierre was, Follett might remind me that he is the sacrist. If I forgot what a sacrist is (not having ever lived in a monastery or nunnery myself) he may throw in something about him taking care of the special ornaments and I am recalled to a conversation Philip had with a guy about the jeweled crucifix. Especially on a ship, I’m sure using occupations could work like it did for Follett.

  6. Hey there,
    I have two characters in my story who are quite different. One is named Melanie but everyone calls her Mel, and the other is called Nellie. Would it be confusing if I had a Mel and a Nellie in the same story?
    (The five girls are called Liz, Mel(anie), Nellie, Alison, and Sara, fyi; if you think any of those names are confusing, please tell me).
    Thank you,
    (and yes, I’m blogging when I’m not supposed to be) 😉

    • I don’t know whether other people do this, but I always find it hardest to distinguish names when two characters who are often in scenes together have names that begin with the same letter–especially ones that are similar lengths. In real life, for example, I can never tell my Davids from my Daniels. So because Mel and Nellie don’t begin with the same letter, it’s fine for me; don’t know about anyone else.
      I do think it would be helpful if the characters actually touch on the fact that their names are similar within the story. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, but a couple sentences of dialogue could let the reader know that you the writer–and they the characters–are aware that the two names are really close to one another, which is certainly allowed. After all, people in real life have similar/identical names all the time. Two Michaels can be best friends with each other. And I once knew a couple in high school whose names were Alex and Alexis. That was pretty funny. And I think if you want to make it funny like that, having a character mix Mel and Nellie up at some point (if the tone of your story allows for something like that) would probably help the reader to not make the same mistake.

    • This isn’t confusing to me unless if you start calling Nellie “Nel”, but if you’re worried you could play up their different personalities to make the differences more obvious. If the story allows it you could make them best friends, so that they’re always together and it won’t matter if the reader mixes up their names.

    • Like NPennyworth said, as long as it’s not “Mel” and “Nell,” you should be OK.

      FWIW, I have a book that has 2 characters with the same name. The younger one’s named after the older one. They’re just never in the same scene together. (In fact, the older one’s dead, but we see him in the afterlife.)

  7. Thanks for answering my question! This came in at a great time because I just finished the first draft of that novel and am setting to work on revising. Sadly, I probably will have to take your advice and cut some of the characters, seeing as many of them are woefully underdeveloped and the draft is already a bit too long (110,000 words when most of my drafts come in at around 80,000) and there are some important scenes and facets I still need to flesh out. My biggest concern with this is that many of the least necessary minor characters are the most diverse ones (i.e, one girl is blind and one has Down Syndrome). Also, a character that I KNOW I’m going to cut because of her blandness is one that has to die for the sake of the plot and I need to replace her with another character. However, once again because it’s a pretty diverse cast, I’m worried that if one of the minority characters dies, readers will read too much into it – I’ve seen enough criticism on the internet because of things like that.
    One other problem I’m dealing with with this story (which has altogether too many characters) is that it’s based on the Six Swans and therefore has to have the six princes. Apart from the oldest and the youngest, their characters are extremely difficult to flesh out as they have very little page time. They’re also hard to differentiate to characters who don’t know all their names because since they are all brothers and are all dressed alike because of their curse, they don’t really have many defining physical characteristics. Sorry this post is so long and thanks!

    • It is indeed tricky dealing with diverse characters in fiction–you’re afraid people will criticize you if you don’t have them, but if you do have them and do something “wrong” with them, then they’ll criticize you anyway. I think in your case I’d still go ahead with paring down your cast, but I’d look for ways to combine characters rather than cut them. Is there any possible way that one of your more important characters can be blind? Or have Down’s? As for your minority who has to die, I think one of the ways to avoid having that read into too much is to have other minority characters who don’t die. If you have as much variety in how you treat your minority characters as you do in your majority characters (is that what you call them? I don’t know…) then I don’t think you’ve got so much to worry about on the reading-into-it front.

      About your six princes–is it possible that you could use their sameness to your advantage? It’s hard to know without knowing your whole story, but I’m thinking maybe you could just make them all the same on purpose–have characters mix them up and treat them like they’re all the same person, have them all use the same gestures and figures of speech (and frown when they realise their brothers are doing the exact same thing), and make part of the struggle of their curse (I haven’t actually read the Six Swans so I don’t really know what the curse is so I may be totally off-base here) the fact that they can’t be individuals. Because that’s got to hurt, too. Not having anything of their own, not even their identities, not even their names since people don’t bother to learn them… that could be pretty powerful, and I think readers could empathize with that need for personal identity even if they don’t have each prince fleshed out for them one by one.
      Anyway, just a thought. I don’t know whether it’ll work with your WIP, but I thought I’d share it.

    • The book Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George does a parody of the twelve dancing princesses, so there are many princes in this book. Although they all have names, the author only focuses in on one or two of them and the rest all blend together. If you have one or two princes that are important to the plot, you can give them more defining characteristics (ie: taller or have a limp) and let the rest become one group. They’re still there, but you don’t need to worry about overwhelming the reader and the story with so much information.

      • Thanks everyone! I’m pretty sure I’ve decided how to cut down the crew from 12 girls down to 8, which makes it much more manageable. The main cast is pretty diverse, so I think I might be okay on that front. And with the princes, like NPennyworth and Melissa Mead said, I’m probably going to just leave them as is, with only a couple fully fleshed out – they really don’t have enough page time/importance to warrant having detailed characterization. Thanks for the help!

        • I have five little brothers, and they all look fairly similar. Most people who only know us a little bit can remember their names, but not which one they belong to. They usually say things like “your quiet brother with the lighter hair” and “the one that laughs a lot”, “the crazy one who is always reading or doing backflips”, “the one who likes to talk,” to me when they’re trying to describe which one they’re talking about. Even though they don’t know them super well, they notice something about them, and people understand who they are talking about. If you have something about them that they just do–even if they’re not super fleshed out characters, I think the readers will be able to recognize them, if that makes similar sense.

          • Um, I just mean regular sense, with absolutely no adjective attached. I don’t know why I wrote similar. 🙂

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Lots of helpful stuff here! I’m commenting on just one aspect of what you wrote, capng, but it’s for everybody. I don’t think we should pay much attention to what we read online about what’s good or bad in writing. We don’t know the person who said whatever it was or what his motive was–or how good a writer he is! I don’t know any rule about killing off or not killing off minor characters. It depends, as it always does, on how it’s done and how the death fits into the plot. One of the things I adore about this blog is how positive and encouraging we all are.

  8. This question is kind of technical on grammar, I hope you guys don’t mind.

    Is there any way to write about past events (which the author makes known are past events) in present tense? For example, I recently read a book called The Geography of Bliss, which is basically some guy’s memoir about traveling the globe, and almost the entire book was written in present tense, even though at the very beginning it’s clear that all the events are from the past. (obviously, since it’s a memoir) Even flashbacks to events that occurred before the main story (that would normally be written in the past perfect tense in a regular book in past tense (ex: I had talked, I had run)) were written in present tense, after one sentence in past tense to let the reader know that it’s a flashback. An example from the book would be:

    “A few days before traveling to the ashram, I had been in Delhi, visiting friends, when I noticed a small ad announcing the Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was giving a lecture, “Sucess without Stress.” I couldn’t miss this.

    I arrive early, but there is already a long line. We are searched perfunctorily before entering a large auditorium…”

    As you can see, aside from the first few sentences of set up in past tense, the flashback is written in present tense, same as the main narrative. I want to write my next novel in the same style, but I was wondering if that was grammatically correct, transitioning from past to present tense when talking about the same event. Are there any rules about mixing present and past tense in writing? So far all I’ve been able to find online regarding rules about writing in present tense are basic grammar conjugation rules. I hope I haven’t confused anyone too bad, and any help is appreciated!


    • I’m no grammar guru ;), but whenever I have grammar problems I just read the sentences aloud, and if they sound weird there’s probably something wrong. I would try this and if it sounds okay, it probably is okay. As far as I can tell there are rules about switching tenses in the middle of a sentence, but no restrictions on switching tenses in the middle of the chapter. If you’re having trouble, I’d try writing the past tense part in italics, and when switching to present tense go to normal writing.

    • I agree with NPennyworth. One of my WIPs is set in present tense, and I LOVE writing it–it’s a lot of fun and has more things you can do with dialogue and getting into the characters’ minds than you can in 3rd person (in my opinion). I don’t think the switching up is too confusing so long as you don’t use it constantly. If you make it very clear that it’s a flashback, then I don’t think the reader will be confused. Good luck!! Have fun with it!!!

      • My BFF LOVES that book! My mom won’t let me read it till I’m 18, but I sneaked a peek at the first 2 chapters and it sounds good.

  9. Oh, and also, does anyone know where I can find an American English to Canadian English translator/dictionary? I know that some of the terms and vocabulary is different between the two countries (carpark instead of parking lot, for example), and since my novel’s going to be set in Canada I want to get the vocabulary right.

    • There’s an article here:
      Most of the language is the same, and Canada is a diverse country with immigrants from all over the world, so slang and vocabulary varies according to what province, city, and even neighbourhood you’re in. Don’t worry too much about it!
      (PS I live in Canada and I have never heard the term carpark before)

  10. Hullo, all!

    Here’s the problem: I have been working on this one book for a while, but I recently had a great idea for another book. Is it okay to work on more than one book at a time? Or is that never done? I’m an amateur writer and I’m still figuring this stuff out.

    • You don’t even want to know how many WIPs I have right now (more than 5). I call it ADD writing–I think taking a break from one story to work on one (or more) of my others. I also find that switching to another helps a lot when dealing with Writer’s Block. I can give one story a rest while still using my brain’s creative juices, just in a different setting. I say if you want to, go for it!!

      • I have about 50 WiPs, and I’m not ashamed of it. Whenever I get stuck, I just work on something else. Nice to know that there are other writers like that! 😀

    • I’ve known plenty of people who do it. Some people can keep track of both and some can’t. I have a hard enough time keeping track of one novel, but sometimes I’ll take a side trip to write short stories.

    • I’m doing that too! Both of my books are in different POVs and I find it actually helps- sometimes what I write in one sparks an idea for the other! I also have a list of ideas that might be fun to write about, so feel free to work on different stories or ideas at the same time.

    • Martina Preston says:

      Oh boy. I started a novel about a year ago and took a side trip to work on a children’s book that I absolutely LOVE (my 6-year old sister does, too. After that was completed, I met up with an old friend in Montana and she sparked a new idea, which is slowly forming into a novella. Actually, most of my “stories” stay as ideas for a good year until I’ve put aside enough WiPs to even find them!
      Right now, though, I do have a consistent series of novellas, called “The Mostly Royals” that I am going to– or I will make myself –stick with until they are completed.
      It is definitely possible for a writer to have more than one book being worked on at a time, but beware, once you have more than like 2 or 3 WiPs, it’s hard to de-clutter them all! XP

    • As long as you feel comfortable with what your doing, and know that neither of your plots will be affected by your diverted attention, it doesn’t matter if your working on 100 stories! Like a lot of things in writing, it all depends on you!

  11. Here’s another grammar question: how do you correctly phrase a possessive sentence involving you and another person? Is using the word “our” the only answer? Or is there some way to incorporate both you and Bertha into the sentence?
    For example, if I wanted to tell Steve that I have the same birthday as Bertha, is there some way of saying “February 29th is Bertha’s and my birthday” without it sounding that awkward? Or is that sentence actually correct?
    I know I could say “Bertha and I have a birthday on February 29th” or “February 29th is our birthday,” but those aren’t quite what I’m going for.

    • Does “February 29th is mine and Bertha’s birthday” work? That’s how I say it in real life, but I don’t know if that’s grammatically correct. 🙂

  12. I have a little problem with my dialect lately. I’m writing a story in Britain and Scotland, but for American readers. The British use terms like “nappy” for “diaper” and “bloke” for “boy/guy” and “telly” for “TV”. Should I explain that, or should I assume American people would understand it?

    • I would not explain and trust that the reader(s) are capable of understanding. Most will know that you are writing about British characters and that they have different terms/slang. If you use really out-there terms that wouldn’t have been in other books or on TV shows or otherwise heard of by a potential reader, you may want to work in a definition. However, if the definition seems forced or stilted, I would leave out the more difficult/less common phrase. Hope this made sense and helped.

      • I’m american, but I’ve lived in england for about a year (this time around, anyway). I still hear some things that british people say that are new to me, but I typically get it out of context, without anyone having to explain it to me. It’s interesting to me how many things they say differently.

    • Martina Preston says:

      I think the more common British phrases– like the ones you mentioned –are fine just being a natural part of the dialect. As the story progresses, the readers will more than likely just start reading British and Scottish slang as part of the American language. If you have more complicated phrases (like tickety boo or skive) then you could try putting a sort of a English-American slang dictionary in the back of your book.
      I hope this helped! 😉

    • Martina Preston says:

      Another thing: You could throw an American character into your story and have them be confused at the weirder British slang. They can ask what some of the phrases mean, helping the reader out and pardoning the reader from not knowing it themselves

  13. Martina Preston says:

    I’m writing a series of novellas right now about different fairy tales (i.e. my versions of Manyfurs or Beauty and the Beast, etc.), and I have most of the characters being related– except for the random people who come in and marry other people, lol. This is proving as kind of a problem for me.
    Cloelia and Eidon are the first people recorded in the fairytale family tree, and the way I am writing their story sounds like it is in the same (or close to the same) time period as the youngest descendants. I’m having trouble distinguishing different time periods, and I’m afraid if I stress the “old” time period with Cloelia, Eidon, and the other grandparents–not grandparents when their stories occur– then the novellas won’t be very exciting. Can anybody help me with this?
    Also, sorry if my question is confusing… 😛
    Kind of an add-on to my question: aren’t most fairytales generally set in the same period of time??? I don’t want the youngest relations to be part of the modern world!

    • Most fairy tales, along with their non-modernized retellings, take place in a vaguely medieval time. Knights, castles, horses or walking as transportation options, etc. Famous fairy tale writers like Hans Christen Andersen and the Brothers Grimm were around in the 1800s. If your story is set in the real world, you’ll have to follow real events to a certain extent. Ex: “History says Germany was at war with France at this time, so I have to incorporate the war or change countries.” “Steam ships haven’t been invented so this voyage will take my characters three weeks.” If you’re building your own kingdoms, remember, you’re the author and you can do whatever you want with time. While there are certainly changes from generation to generation, up until the industrial revolution (1760-mid 1800s), technology changed very slowly.
      Sounds to me like you have four generations: Starr, Cloelia, Cloelia’s children, Cloelia’s grandchildren. If all those characters got married and had a child by 25 (pretty standard until modern times) then all those stories could fit easily inside a hundred years.

      • Martina Preston says:

        That’s a really good point, Erica Eliza! In the standard fairytale time period, people get married in late teens-early twenties, so, like you said, 4 generations could fit into about 100 years. Thank you!

  14. His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman, is told from third person omniscient, from various characters’ points of view. Each character is bonded together by a similar task and they’re either on the good side or the bad. And the two main characters are the ones who are the heroes of the story. The other characters are probably bound to meet the two main characters, though their points of view are told even when they are seperate from each other.
    This trilogy has helped me understand how to tackle different perspectives while I write, and shows me the benefits of using third person omniscient.

  15. I always end up changing my plot and creating new questions when ever I sit down to write. By now Ive had seven different plots and thousands of questions I don’t even know the answers to. Should I go back to my original plot and push through it? I love my characters and the basic story to it but I really don’t know what to do with my story. Any suggestions?

    • I’d say go with the plot that you’re the most excited about. And if you’re writing on a computer, make a file for the other plots, so you can come back to them if you want to.

    • Martina Preston says:

      Write like six or seven of your alternate plots and their endings, then decide which one you like most. If you want, you could even make a Choose-your-own-adventure book!

  16. Is it legal to write TV shows/movies into a story? Like this: “Ellie was lounging on the sofa, watching the Ellen Show and eating a bag of salted pretzels” or “When Delilah found Andrea, she was completely enthralled in watching The Sound of Music.”
    Thank you!

    • I think it’s legal to mention them, especially if the story you’re writing isn’t getting published or anything. And if it is, there’ll probably be someone along the way to tell you what you can and can’t put in, but I’ve seen tons of references in books to pop culture things that are not public domain, and nobody’s suing them. So I think it’s fine. I think. Augh, you’ve got me second-guessing that now!

  17. Are 5 MCs too many? I’m writing a story about five girls on a sports team. It’s a multiple-viewpoint third person narrative, so it jumps from athlete to athlete. It’s a rather deep story, where the five girls deal with a love hexagon (a love triangle with six sides), cyberbullying, and some serious posttraumatic stress disorder. Overall it involves a lot of rich characters with distinct personalities, but I’m not sure if I can go in-depth with 5 MCs. The only story I can think of that switches around a lot and still makes sense is THE PRINCESS AND THE UNICORN by Carol Hughes, where we hear from the princess, the fairy, the governess, and sometimes the bodyguard, but that story wasn’t dealing with deep subplots like trauma and intense romance.
    Just curious!

    • Rick Riordan, in his second Percy Jackson series, had about an average of three “main characters” who “told” the readers the story. In the next novel, the other characters. BUT just because Leo, Piper and Jason are narrating, doesn’t mean that Annabeth, Frank, Hazel and Percy aren’t MC’.s. He wrote it in close third POV (switched off every couple chapters) which helped even more.
      I think when you think about it carefully, you know you’re characters well, and don’t favor one character over another, you’re fine. You just have to be really careful on how much you write in each character. I suggest getting to know your characters before attempting this novel… but that’s just my opinion.

      Good luck!

    • Unsocializedhomeschooler says:

      As long as each MC has her own unique voice, I don’t think five MC’s is too much. I read a book a long time ago called “The Cheat” (not sure who the author was) and it switched between four or five narrators and though the book and the chapters are short, the story lines are just the right amount of complicated and by the end of the book each character is well defined with his/her own subplot and the story still makes sense.

      Character sheets might be helpful for this–have you used the ones in Writing Magic or the ones NANOWRIMO hands out? I find filling those out really helps me with my stories.

      Good luck! Your story sounds epic.

  18. By the way, how do you change your username if you want to use something fun like Butterfly or FairyWings?
    (I just read the second Philippa Fisher book by Liz Kessler which is about butterflies and fairies. Little did I know what a touching story it was going to be—I literally cried through the last two chapters. Amazing book, maybe age 9 and up).

  19. I have finally figured out my entire plot and I’m about to start writing my first draft, But there is one minor problem. I have no idea how To make my MC meet the love interest. I know what happens before and after they meet I just don’t know how to go about the actual confrontation.
    Can anyone offer any inspiration?

    • Hey Jordan!
      I’m not a romance expert (seriously, my crush is a world-famous athlete with whom I’ve exchanged about a dozen words via Twitter) but I’ve read lots of romance stories and I can recount how the love interests were introduced there.
      Gail herself has written many great books, so let’s look at her versions:
      In Ella Enchanted, the MC Ella’s feeling bad because her mother died and love interest Char cheers her up.
      In Fairest, the MC Aza sees love interest Ijori at a wedding, and he saves her from embarrassment in the receiving line.
      In Ever, the love interest Olus rescues MC Kezi from a mean, creepy guy (Actually, both Olus and Kezi are MC’s, but you get the idea)

      Some other examples:
      In Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl, the MC Ani is sitting in a goose pasture when love interest Geric comes riding in on an unruly horse. Ani jumps on the horse and rides around before Geric tells her that it’s not her horse, they have a spat, and the next day he comes with flowers.

      In Soman Chainani’s The School for Good and Evil, the love interest Tedros throws a rose (which signifies his love) into the audience of girls. MC Sophie is so desperate to catch it, but she misses.

      In books with younger MCs, the romance is a lot slower. Take Emily and Aaron in Liz Kessler’s Emily Windsnap series (she’s 12 or 13 and he’s about 14). They’re just friends for a long time before they dive in.

      Hope something helps, and congrats on getting so far!

  20. So I kinda sorta survived my No Blogging Month (OK, I totally failed it, but oh well, I got some work done) and here’s what all happened in the 30 days:
    I wrote 24,000 words of a manuscript and developed a lot of characters
    I joined a Twitter campaign about the need for diverse characters (in which Shannon Hale favorited two of my posts and an imprint of Lee and Low Books followed me!!!)
    I got tickets to a sporting event in Milwaukee where I can see Olympians 😀
    I read the 3rd School for Good and Evil book (which rocked, btw)

  21. Okay, now I have a little question. How much is considered “fair use” of a movie. There’s a line in The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement (starring the same girl who played Ella in the movie version, btw) that goes, “The concept is grasped. The execution is a little…elusive.” It’s around a 90 minute movie. Would that be okay to use?
    Thank you!

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      If you’re attributing the quote, that is, saying where it comes from (naming the movie), that’s probably fine. If you’re using it without attribution, it’s copying–yes, plagiarism, and I suggest finding your own way to say what you have in mind.

      Congratulations on all your success over the month!

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