Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Taming the Crowd

by Janis Patterson

It's funny, but as a writer one of the most consistent reactions I get is "How do you keep all the characters in a whole book straight?"

I don't understand. Each character is a separate and distinct person, albeit just not in concrete form. How can I mix up a separate and distinct person with another separate and distinct person, even if they exist only in my imagination and a collection of pixels?

The non-writers always look at me weirdly as I answer, but usually don't scoff openly unless I tell them that I normally have three or four projects going more or less simultaneously. Then they are absolutely astonished - and again they wonder how I not only keep all the characters straight, but keep all of them in their own books.

Only a few, usually writers, scoff  when I explain. (And I really don't see how they can work on only one project at a time without becoming fatally bored! But - chacun à son goût!) I ask them if they have a job, then if they go to church, then if they have extended family they don't see every day. Most everyone answers yes. Then I ask them if they ever get someone from their extended family mixed up with someone from their church, or their job. Every single time (almost!) they answer "Of course not!" rather indignantly ... then the light begins to dawn behind their eyes. Sometimes it dawns slowly, but it does dawn. Most of the time.

The Husband says I live only half-way in the world of reality, and I guess he's right, because my characters are as real - and sometimes more so - than the biological specimens with whom I interact. Everyone knows that writing is a lonely profession - just the writer and his computer and the stories in his head. Still - I'm never lonely. My characters are always there, and sometimes working alone in an empty office can get very crowded.


Hywela Lyn said...

LOL I can only agree with your remark about it getting 'crowded' sometimes - especially when one's characters start arguing with one. A very interesting post, and as a writer myself, I never even stop to think about keeping characters 'straight' in my head, as you say, they're all separate individuals, just like 'real' people!

Earl Staggs said...

I'm with you on this. So far, my characters have stayed where they belong even when I switch to another story. I'm sure if I got them confused and tried to put them in the wrong place at the wrong time, they wouldn't stand for it and would never speak to me again.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

In truth for sooth, I cheat. I write character bibles for each of my novels. That way I keep everything about each character correct--names, physical descriptions, background info, etc. My memory just isn't as good as it once was.

Linda Thorne said...

I can't imagine getting any of my characters mixed up. Each and ever one has already been created and I'll never forget who they are. I have been guilty of having too many characters and I've had to write some out of some stories including my debut novel. I just don't see any writer forgetting or mixing up who their characters are. They should know them inside-out and backwards, and I think they all do (or at least 98% of them).

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

What a perfect explanation. Though I never get my characters mixed up, how could I?, the older I get the harder time I have remembering the names of new characters, though I can definitely remember how they look. Yes, I keep a good list in case I need to check up for myself.

Linda Thorne said...

I can understand how readers might think it's hard to remember them if they are reading books by Lee Child, John Grisham, Lawrence Block. I actually think they might really get them mixed up with as many books as they put out. My characters (even those I have in the future books I haven't written or finished) are alive and well and definitely remembered by me. They each have a purpose in the book and an identity I created for them (or they imposed upon me). Marilyn, I'm surprised you remember as many of your characters, especially the minor ones, when you've written and published about 40 books altogether. I enjoyed this post.