As writers, we have lots of ideas. Our brains are full of them and they’re a constant buzz in the background throughout the day. Our novels and stories are a few of those ideas carefully condensed into a format others can understand. But keeping that balance maintained through the process of writing the novel is like constantly walking a high-wire. Too much plot at once makes the story muddy, not enough, and the reader is left feeling empty. And too many characters all competing for attention is just as bad.
I’ve seen some writers around the web lately saying the characters are never out of control. They say they come from you, you always know what’s going on, so how can imaginary things run amuck? Well, characters can and do run wild if you let them. They’re also very real to a lot of us writers and that’s something I’ll elaborate about at another time.
The Bonds of Blood & Spirit (BBS) series Wendi and I are writing isn’t about any one character specifically. It’s about a group of characters. Each one has a story to tell, and the whole story is how all these lives come together over time. When a group is your focus, it’s very difficult to stay on track and decide what is most important to include in each book.
The more I started thinking about how we manage our characters, the more they resembled my cats. Have you ever tried to get a cat to do something? They’re not like dogs. They don’t care about pleasing the Alpha of the house at all. Cats do everything on their own terms and if their terms happen to cross paths with your terms, then everyone’s happy.
5 Keys to Herding
While I was poking around the net for “cat herding”, I came across a little graphic list on the best way to do just that. I don’t know who came up with that list, but here it is, rewritten for our purposes here.
Characters Don’t Like To Be Herded. Have you ever tried to force a character into a specific situation? The more you push, the more frustrating it becomes. The writing gets stiff, nothing flows. The thing is, you know it’s not working. Right? That’s your cue to take a step back and figure out where the block is. Are you doing something highly out of character for your character? How can you change the scene or some of the elements to make the character’s actions more believable?
Characters Prefer To Herd Themselves. This tip picks up where the previous one left off. The less you try to force something to happen, chances are the more likely your mind will free itself to write what needs to be written. Over thinking is what causes most cases of writer’s block. You think and think and think until you don’t know what’s right anymore. Just tell the story. Worry about polishing up those plot holes later on. Let the characters do what they’re going to do within the framework of your structure. You’ll be surprised where it takes you.
Characters Understand They Sometimes Need To Be Herded. Alright. I can hear the “Characters Can’t Think For Themselves” Camp saying “Your characters aren’t real, they don’t ‘understand’ anything!”. Maybe so. What I’m saying here is subconsciously, the writer understands the characters need boundaries. This doesn’t make it any easier, but understanding this will remind you to take a step back every now and then to make sure the whole story hasn’t been horribly derailed.
Characters Don’t Like To Be Reminded They Need Herding. Sounds like a contradiction to the last point, doesn’t it? Sometimes when we’re in a zone with our characters and having a great time, we may end up writing some really cool stuff…only to find that several pages later we’ve gone off on a tangent. It sucks when you have to scrap something that was so much fun to do. Another side of it is when we’re working with old ideas from our files. Many of the characters in the BBS series had “previous lives”. Wendi and I were very much attached to a lot of that old history. But much of what was written, didn’t fit this new direction. Some serious herding needed to be done to get everyone going in the right direction.
Harsh Herding Equals Negative Consequences. Heavy handedness from the author always shows. The moment you force your characters to abruptly change without reason to fit what you want them to do, you rip the reader right out of the Suspension of Disbelief Zone and bring everything to a squealing, wheel-grinding, spark flying mess of a stop.
Characters need as much structure as your overall story. After all, they are the foundation. They are the ones moving and shaping the course of events. Our characters are fun to watch in action, they’re everything from graceful to downright amusing. They can be mysterious and enigmatic. And when we least expect it, they surprise us with something new. As long as you can keep them on track and in line when you need to, you’ll end up with a story your readers can’t get enough of.