R.L. Akers talks about character development
I hope everyone enjoyed meeting my good friend, R.L. Akers and the introduction to his new first novel, “Prometheus Rebound.” Last week I stated that we would meet R.L.’s protagonist, Kara Dunn. As I was organizing questions from the interview, I thought it would be important to talk about characters in general before we looked at Kara specifically.
The following is a loosely translated transcript from our conversation on 11 October 2013.
“How many characters do you have?”
R.L.A. “ Maybe fifteen that I focus on, though there’s definitely a main character. But as far as how many named individuals I’m tracking? Oh… two hundred or so..”
“200? I can hardly keep track of two kids, let alone two hundred fictional characters. Why in the world would you have so many?”
R.L.A. “The story (I’m talking both books here) follows the creation of an entire new branch of military, to be deployed to orbit to protect Earth from attack. All told, there are actually 812 servicemen and –women that get deployed. While that seems like a lot, in the grand scheme of things it’s really not (since each one fills a very specific role), and I quickly learned that I needed to have at least a little bit of info on paper for many of them, or else I’d trip over myself and introduce inconsistencies into the story. Besides, I have this philosophy when writing (at least in this story), that every single life is important…Even if I knew I was about to kill a random character off after two minutes of “screen time,” I felt he or she needed a name. Probably especially if I was about to kill them off.”
“Kind of like on Star Trek when the guy in the red shirt always dies.”
R.L.A. “Exactly. Or rather, exactly the opposite. Besides the philosophy of the thing, you don’t want to be predictable. When I write a character, I want the reader to invest in them, not knowing whether that character is important or not. Because if this were a real person, he or she would be important to someone.”
“How did you come up with their names?”
R.L.A. “I spent a lot of time playing around in Excel! I made a huge list of first names and a huge list of last names, then randomized them, then randomized demographic information and even duty rosters and such.”
“Did you get any great names like Seymour Butts, Robyn DeCradle or Hugh Jass?”
R.L.A. (Laughing) “A few, actually. Mostly that kinda thing was distracting, though, so I fixed them. But it also created a number of interesting coincidences, the same kind of thing that happens in real life and causes people to laugh and comment. I left those in where possible, because it added humor and—I think—a splash of reality. Because yes, in the real world, you often have three guys named John who have to work side by side. “
“Is it tough to keep everyone straight?”
R.L.A. “No, but it does add significant time to the process. I have one day a week that’s completely devoted to working on stories, and sometimes, I don’t even do any writing on those days—I work instead on updating my spreadsheets or doing character summaries. My story is about people, so it’s important that I always keep the character development in mind.”
“Will it be tough for the reader to keep track of the characters?”
R.L.A. “That’s a really good question, and one I try to keep in mind while writing. Of course, I don’t expect readers to have any name recognition for most of those characters; it’s just about making sure I stay consistent. I don’t want to say at one point that John Smith was in charge of such and such duty, then eight chapters later name some other individual. For the readers that like that level of detail, who are naturally skeptical when reading and want everything to fit perfectly… I think they’ll be satisfied. Most readers will probably gloss over those details and not miss anything. Either way, it adds to the realism, just like we hear names tossed around all the time in the real world and often don’t register or remember them later. Besides, I also want the stories I write to be re-readable, to offer up more enjoyment the second or third time around, when certain details stick out differently because the reader now knows where it’s all going.”
“Do they ever surprise you with their actions?”
R.L.A. “Actually, yes! These are humans and sometimes humans do surprising things. I can’t say much without causing a major spoiler, but I have one character who does something pretty horrific in the first book. I was fairly deep into writing the story when I realized I needed to add something with this level of emotional import in a strategic place, and I sat for a while trying to decide which of my beloved characters I needed to sacrifice in this way (knowing I would lose him/her from the rest of the series). But then I realized the answer was obvious. It fit this person’s backstory and personality and would make a twisted sort of sense to them. So yes, in a very real sense, that character surprised me while staying completely in character. It gave me chills.
That is all for today. Next week, R.L. and I will talk about his protagonist, Kara Dunn (I promise).
From → writing