Thursday, September 19, 2013


I love Harry Turtledove.  His works of alternate history are among the best reading in the sci-fi world.  They're well thought out, plausible, and give us a wonderful insight into the world of "what if."  If I could write half as well as Turtledove, I would consider myself a master.

However, I can also use Turtledove to demonstrate a problem I call overcrowding.  His series called The Great War takes an alternate ending to the Civil War and brings it all the way through World War Two.  While a great concept for a novel, the series presents one major flaw - there are too many characters.

Characters are (usually) what our stories revolve around.  Readers want to care about those we bring to life, and they experience the story through the eyes of our people.  Unfortunately, the human attention span, being what it is, gets easily confused if there are too many characters.  We begin to get folks mixed up and lose track of who's important and who's throwaway.

The Great War saga by Turtledove demonstrates this point perfectly.  I remember several of the characters, from Jake Featherston to Irving Morrell to Cincinnatus, and they were integral to the story, but there were also dozens of other characters that were part of the story, and although I vaguely recall some of them and their roles, I'm not sure how many I could remember well without going back through the book.  This would be fine if they were supporting roles that depended on their interaction with a couple of main guys to advance the plot, but Turtledove spends whole chapters giving me insight into people I wonder why I'm learning about.

Eventually, I got to the point where when I came across one of these annoying little twits, I'd skim lightly, if at all, and move on to the folks I really gave a shit about.  The schmucks in between were annoyances, tolerated only because I liked Turtledove's story so much.

As writers, this is a point we need to keep in mind.  If we aren't careful, our imaginations can lead us into stories that seem to grow out of control, and we'll find ourselves adding too many people to what we've already mapped out.  Not only does this risk annoying the reader, but as time marches on, it makes our task so much more complex.  This has happened to me, and I've found myself flipping back through pages of completed text to see what I named someone who needed to make another appearance for the sake of some minor plot point the novel could probably do without.  I've edited things where I've discovered people switching names and personality traits, and it always elicits an "aw shit" since I now have to go back and change the landscape because of my own carelessness.  The biggest worry is that it will ripple through the story so much that I'll have to do a wholesale re-write.

I think the best writers focus on one or two main folks who are vital to the story(as Turtledove does in The Guns of the South).  We get invested in them and their well being, and we know those are the important guys.  Readers see this immediately, but we writers, in an effort to add realism and complexity to our worlds, sometimes forget and add too much.  Just like a cocktail party where we know almost nobody, it can make for an uncomfortable situation.

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