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R.L. Akers talks about character development

October 21, 2013

prometheus_rebound

Hey Y’all,

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).

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9 Comments
  1. Thanks for sharing R.L. Akers writers journey. “They” told me to not have more than three or four characters in a book. Too confusing. I had 8 or 9 in my first… and about 16 or so in book two. I had a couple people lose track of who they were in book one. But those are the readers who read a bit at a time. Those who sit down and read the entire book never got lost. To deal with that this time, I am making an organizational chart with names. I think those who wonder… “who is that?” can flip to the front and see who and where they sit.
    Not sure if this is right. All a learning process. I’m so glad to see someone else “breaking” the writing rules!

    • Karlene,

      First of all, I hope that you are back stateside with your family. It is not tough to be a pilot that can travel anywhere in the world. It is very difficult to be a pilot who does travel anywhere in the world. Even when you do all the right things: eat right, drink lots of water, sleep well, and exercise. It is still tough to be three days ahead of your body.

      R.L. is a fantastic guy who is willing to take a chance. He is not afraid to live his dreams and doesn’t hold back. He attacks life and lives with no regrets. I like that he is breaking the rule about numbers of characters, just as you have. You are right in that there is a chance that a reader will get lost. I got lost in Green Eggs and Ham once and everything worked out just fine.

      The idea of the org chart is a good idea. I have considered doing that for my book as well. It does help clean up things for the reader.

  2. Wow. And I thought I had a fair amount of characters!!! Holy Cow! I don’t have a spread sheet….that’s a good idea. I’ve been known to let my eyes wonder around a room for a good 15 minutes trying to think of a good last name for someone. lol. Glad you got to pick RL’s brain, Rob!

    • Abby,

      I almost slapped myself on the forehead like I had a V-8 moment when he said that. I take way too long to create names for minor characters. It is simple and brilliant.

      Thanks for being along for the ride.

  3. Great question–How many characters. With all the naysayers about limiting number of characters in novels, you’re a breath of fresh air. How many POV’s do you follow?

    • Jacqui,

      Welcome to the conversation. I hope you find everyone over here on this side of the blog-o-sphere to be warm and welcoming.

      I agree with you, Karlene, and Abby. R.L. is a breath of fresh air. I admire those who thumb their noses at the establishment, in a respectful way. R.L. is certainly a man of honor, integrity, and one who follows his own way in the writing world.

      I will ask him your question and report back on what he says. Right now, he is busier than a one legged man playing soccer.

      • I got nagged by an agent for too many POV’s. Completely shocked me, so I’m researching.

  4. Thanks for the encouragement, Jacqui! In the first book, I focus maybe 75% POV on my main character, maybe 15% on 5-6 other characters, and the remainder on what I think of as “fast forward” passages (summary sections that move the narrative forward rapidly, since it takes place over a period of 18 months); these passages are more omniscient, no POV. In the second book, I broaden the perspective much more: roughly 40% on the main character, the remainder distributed among 10-15 other characters (largely those who were introduced in book 1, but a few new ones as well).

    I don’t disagree with the wisdom of keeping a short list of characters, the same wisdom that says keep your debut novel under 80,000 words. However, I also “consider the source” of that wisdom. My gut tells me that traditional publishers are running a business, and they’re not looking to take extreme risks. They want to pick up lots of titles that are going to perform adequately in the marketplace. I think there’s a reason books like The Shack or the Harry Potter series were so hard to get published — they’re innovative, and that’s risky.

    For my part, I’ve decided I’m going to write and publish the stories I want to write, albeit with considerable proofing and feedback. In this case, that means 350,000 words in just two volumes, with lots and lots of characters — that happens to be the kind of epic story I enjoy as a reader. If the books fall flat on their faces in the marketplace, well, that’s okay. If I wanted fame and riches, I’d like to think there are better ways to attain those than writing books. 🙂

    • R.L.

      Welcome to the blog and I welcome you to conversation. In my mind there are two types of people, those who blindly follow the suggestions of the establishment. And those who view the suggestions as a guide but not a rule. I admire everyone who isn’t afraid to make their own way in the world.

      Many of the friends who hang out here are like that. Julie, Abby, Mike, Big Joe, Erica, Harrison, Rhyan, WS, and Karlene have been friends for a while. I think Jacqui and R.L. will fit in well with the little band of writer warriors that is beginning to assemble here. Rock on Y’all. I think together we will rule the world and turn the writing establishment on its ear.

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