Too Many Characters Spoil a Conspiracy

Plots are meant for conspirators and there is no greater conspiracy than writing. The writer of course is the main caballer, since the dice is unfairly loaded in his favor. The temptation to play God is never so stronger.

Yet writing takes as much discipline as making a pipe bomb. Once the broad plot is in place, the hard work begins. How many words? How many characters? How to find a common thread that makes every actor relevant to the big picture in every situation? It is usually a memory that sparks the desire to write a story; or it could be a stray phrase or colour. Writing is the art of planning an alternate future with the stolen riches of the past.

There are two types of writers. Those who plan meticulously and the others who go with the flow.

Last week at Odisha LitFest I was chatting with Devapriya Roy, whose The Heat and Dust project I’m currently reading and enjoying and Ira Nukhoty, whose Daughters of the Sun I’ve just read and enjoyed. Devapriya and I are on the same page; we like to see what the character does scene by scene, how he or she interacts with others and record, interpret or are simply delighted by the scenarios that follow. Ira being a historian does not have that luxury. Perhaps she will lose herself to the joy of sailing in the wind of narrative one day with a rush of words flowing through her (rather short but smart) hair when she tries her hand at fiction (which she will do soon because the ghosts of the characters she has exorcised on to her pages in such lucid detail will haunt her with the seduction of imagination). And there are writers like Vikram Seth whose genius for detail, patience to get the exact word and sentence and linkage right always leaves me gasping in admiration.

For a good story that will keep readers rapt avoid having too many prominent characters. Stick to six and give four of them varying degrees of importance. And stuff the rest of the book with the accouterments of the situations they get into. You’ll be amazed at what you come up with.

The reason is simple. You.

You already know what each important character is going to be like, what he or she is capable of, what they feel. Just allow them to react to the atmosphere and watch the fun.

I have found that my stories write themselves. I discover they produce characters I had never dreamt about before or dialogues and images that surprise me with their vividness.

Writing is an adventure. All conspiracies are adventures.

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