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[GUEST POST] Marc Turner on Distinguishing His Cast of Characters in WHEN THE HEAVENS FALL

marc-222Marc Turner was born in Canada, but grew up in England. His first novel, When the Heavens Fall, is published by Tor in the US and Titan in the UK. You can see a video trailer for the book here and read a short story set in the world of the novel here. The short story has also been narrated by Emma Newman of Tea and Jeopardy fame, and you can listen to it free here. Marc can be found on Twitter at @MarcJTurner and at his website.

Distinguishing the Cast

by Marc Turner

Many years ago, when I decided to try and turn my writing hobby into something more serious, I sent the first two chapters of my debut,When the Heavens Fall, to The Writer’s Workshop for professional feedback. The author who looked at those chapters – Keith Brooke – gave me a number of ideas on how I could improve my writing. One of them came under the heading “Distinguishing the Cast”, and the advice is something I remember to this day.

When the Heavens Fall features four point-of-view characters, two male, two female. The two male characters are very different animals. Luker is a Guardian – an elite warrior whose very thoughts are weapons. He’s an orphan, an outsider, utterly uncompromising, and with a sense of humour that veers towards the black. Ebon, on the other hand, is a prince. He is privileged, polished, principled, yet scarred by years of spirit-possession following an ill-fated expedition into a haunted forest that borders his kingdom. Two entirely different characters with entirely different backgrounds.

Or so I thought.

The problem was, when Keith Brooke read my sample chapters all those years ago he had trouble telling Luker and Ebon apart. There wasn’t much by way of physical description to differentiate them. But more importantly they spoke in much the same way, and their response to the world around them was the same. That had to change.

In When the Heavens Fall and its sequels, I use a limited third person point of view. So it’s “he saw this, she did that”, but it’s “limited” in the sense that the story is told solely from the viewpoint character’s perspective. You see the world through that character’s eyes, you know only what they know, and the author’s job is to convey their thoughts and feelings, and thus give a sense of what it is like to be that person. This is in contrast to the omniscient third person point of view where the author tends to float above the action, describing events in the round, and dipping into the thoughts of different characters as needs dictate.

When I looked at my writing in the light of Keith Brooke’s comments, I found that whilst I was relating the physical side of each character’s experience, I wasn’t so good at getting across the mental or emotional side. The physical side is much easier, obviously. If someone stabs you with a sword, the physical response – pain – is going to be much the same for everyone, but the emotional response to that pain, or to being wounded, or facing death, will differ greatly.

Except that wasn’t the case in my early writing. At times the viewpoint character seemed almost a bystander to what was going on, rather than living through it. Instead of being inside their head, I was looking over their shoulder. I was telling a story, but it could have been anyone’s story, rather than the story of that particular character. I had to make it Luker’s story, or Ebon’s story, or whatever. One thing that helped me do this was to imagine each character’s background, outlook, prejudices etc. as a sort of filter through which they viewed the world. Because of that filter, every character should experience every encounter in a different way.

And I don’t just mean big encounters here, I mean small ones too. The Mass Effect computer games illustrate this well. In those games, when you undertake a mission you can choose from a number of different squadmates to accompany you, and each of those squadmates has their own distinctive take on what happens. So at the beginning of one mission you hear an enemy commander giving her troops orders over a loudspeaker. Your squadmates are all critical, but they express their disapproval in different ways. The wisecracking Garrus says, “Loudspeaker? Someone likes the sound of their own voice.” Whereas the psychotic Jack says, “I already want to kill this person.”

Later in the mission you see an alien “krogan” warrior muscle aside a large metal panel. Some of your squadmates are impressed at this show of strength, but not the hardbitten mercenary Zaeed who says, “Yeah, yeah. Krogans are strong. We get it.” While your “robot” companion Legion observes, “This is a heavy labour model?”. Each of these responses is perfectly in character. None of your other squadmates would have come up with precisely those lines. And whilst these might seem like minor details in isolation, over the course of a story I think they can add up to something more telling.

So how do you get inside and stay inside a character’s head? You hear about some actors who go to extreme lengths to do this. Apparently for the film Lincoln, Daniel Day Lewis used his character’s voice all the time, including between takes and after filming. He also demanded that the cast, crew and even the director, Steven Spielberg, refer to him as Mr. President on set. Are there writers who go to such lengths to maintain each character’s “voice”? I don’t know. But I do know that constantly swapping between the four viewpoint characters in When the Heavens Fall made the process more difficult for me.

So I came up with a novel approach (no pun intended): I wrote each character’s thread separately. By that I mean I wrote the whole of Luker’s story, then the whole of Ebon’s story, and so on. It was only after all four characters’ stories were written that I began the task of weaving them together. It was a difficult process. At the start of When the Heavens Fall the four character strands run in parallel, but they increasingly overlap as the story progresses, and the final third of the book brings all of the players together for a suitably climactic finale. It took a lot of planning, and a lot of editing, to make it work, but by writing in this way I found it easier to maintain a consistent character voice.

Inevitably there are pitfalls to this approach, and I was forced to adapt it slightly in the sequel, Dragon Hunters. Here, the interactions between the various characters were too complex to allow me to write any one character’s story from start to finish. So instead I wrote the first three-quarters of each character’s story, then the final quarter of the book in a more “orthodox” fashion, chapter by chapter.

Now I’m more used to the process I find it easier, but I still make mistakes. For example, I might discover that character X mentions offhand a plot point that gets a big “reveal” by character Y in the next chapter. And in the third book of my series, Red Tide, I reached the end of the first draft only to realise that the story of one of the characters was spread over five days, whereas everyone else’s was spread over four. Cue some re-writing. And swearing.

For me personally, though, the benefits of this approach outweigh the drawbacks, and it’s one that I’ll be sticking with.

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