Crowded house: writing a party
Nah, not the kind with ale and food and wenches, though that happens from time to time.
More like a party of people. At the moment I’m struggling with some of my chapters, as there are just too many damned people there all the time. Up until this point most of what I’ve written has been fairly straight-forward, with a handful of people doing fairly straight-forward things. Two, maybe three people in conversation, nice tight little story arcs… It was particularly comfortable in The Aldersgate because, well, every chapter was a new point of view, and helped me keep things neat and in a row.
Now, in Peter of Windbourne, all of the sudden there are at least five people in just about every single scene. Oh sure I can write it out. Sure I can finagle it. But that doesn’t give me many options. Not to mention that my inability to balance characters was one of the reasons the first draft didn’t work (one of myriad reasons, but one still). I mean, I’m traveling with an entourage. There were five, but soon there will be seven. Seven!?
Maybe this is one of the hallmarks of pure fantasy, rather than steampunk fantasy. With no travel available but horseback, people tend to cluster together and travel in groups. It certainly goes back to the whole retinue concept, of a knight and his soldiers trolling the countryside, and always reminds me a bit of Tolkien’s Fellowship. What Tolkien did was to segment his characters, and build stronger relationships between the to facilitate dialogue and plot. Legolas and Gimli had their competition, Merry and Pippin their food, Frodo and Sam their melancholy, and Aragorn and Gandalf their leadery stuff. Oh, then there was Boromir somewhere in between. But he didn’t end up so well.
So certainly the first step is trying to forge relationships between the characters. It’s also essential to “pull a Dumbledore”–that is, to have a character who serves as a point of exposition, someone that the reader–and protagonist–can believe. Not only does this prevent all the characters constantly asking questions of one another (which would be unbearably annoying) but allows me to advance the plot without resorting to straight-out exposition.
One of the biggest changes I also have done in this draft is to make Peter, the protagonist, smarter and a little older. I think in the first draft he was 15 or 16; by the second he was 18. This draft, he’s almost twenty, and he’s spent his life with tutors. It makes sense for the course of the story, as he was schooled for a monastery. In earlier drafts I was frustrated with his lack of character, which was really more a result of his ignorance and starry-eyed (cliche) nature. Well, suffice it to say I was a little sick of it. I mean, this is sword and sorcery; there are some things I should keep from the genre. But not everything.
More than anything though, it makes Peter active. Even though he’s learning a great deal through his new companions, he’s got something to say. He’s got opinions. He’s not just a sponge. And sponges, as I’ve learned, are boring. Right?
What I didn’t expect, however, is a heightened sense of tension with this revamped crew. I find that because so many characters are in so many scenes, there’s much more opportunity for argument, disagreement and confrontation. It also makes fight scenes a whole lot more like a coordinated dance. Without guns, which was the primary weapon in The Aldersgate, there’s a focus to combat that I didn’t have before. And it’s actually a blast. Both of my readers have commented that the scenes are a bit nail-biting–and they should be. It’s one of the things about medieval warfare that I love so much; it’s more brawn and endurance than skill, sometimes, and it’s drawn out, difficult.
I’m still learning this whole “big crew” perspective. Thankfully it’s not something that will be apparent through the whole book–they move on and split up a bit, and reconvene, etc. But I’ve got at least one more solid chapter to keep the balance…
Any writers out there experience similar juggling acts? I’d love to know how you manage a crowd!