Thought of the Week: Character-Driven Fiction

I spent some time today (possibly wasted time—hard to say) going back through books one, two and what’s finished of three and counting the number of named characters in each book. Total so far? Ninety-three.

Nearly one hundred names in two and a half books seems pretty extreme; it means at least two newly introduced names per chapter, at least. Of course, not nearly all of these characters are important, and sometimes they are named merely for the sake of convenience (e.g. keeping track of who’s talking in dialogue). Of these ninety-three characters, twenty-four of them I’ve counted as ‘primary characters’; that is to say, characters without whom the book or the events within could not exist. Among these are:

  • Brandyé Dui-Erâth: the primary protagonist and hero of the story
  • Elven Dottery: his closest friend, and secondary protagonist from Exile onward
  • Elỳn: an Illuèn (race of Light), who features primarily in Brandyé’s dreams in the first book
  • Sonora: Elven’s sister, and catalyst for many of the events in Consolation

I ended up creating a mind map of all the characters, because I’m at the point where I’m starting to reuse certain names, simply because I forgot that I already used them before. This is what it looks like at the moment:

Mind map of the characters in The Redemption of Erâth, with partial connections shown.

Mind map of the characters in The Redemption of Erâth, with partial connections shown.

This is something I actually had to separate off from the mind map I’d created for the entire book series, which included a lot of other information such as races, themes, locations, etc. This mind map is actually so large that I feel it’s now less than helpful:

Mind map of the entire book series!

Anyway, the point of this is to say that I’m starting to feel a little overwhelmed by all these characters rearing their little heads and telling me their names. It makes me realize, though, that not all great fiction necessarily relies on a great number of characters. And that makes me despair, slightly.

How many people were in The Lord of the Rings?

How many people were in The Lord of the Rings?

Now when it comes to characters, there exist absolutely phenomenal stories with very large numbers of characters. According to Middle-Earth in Statistics, there are nearly 1,000 named characters throughout Tolkien’s extended worlds, including The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion. A huge number of these are there merely in passing, but nonetheless exist and were created by Tolkien at some point. Similarly, according to (the wonderfully reliable) Yahoo Answers, there are 772 named characters throughout the Harry Potter seriesWar and Peace purportedly has over 600 in a single novel.


“Without Pip, Estella, Joe, Miss Havisham and the others, there would be no story at all.”


Miss Havisham—one of the most unforgettable characters in literary history.

Miss Havisham—one of the most unforgettable characters in literary history.

However, one of my favorite works of fiction ever, Charles Dickens’ masterpiece Great Expectations, has only eighteen characters worth mentioning (according to SparkNotes). How did an enormous epic such as Great Expectations manage to reach its conclusion with such a comparably small number of characters? How did Dickens manage to keep the reader interested in so few people over such a long novel?

To my mind, the answer lies not only in the development of the characters, which Dickens does masterfully, but in the narrative itself, and the fact that in Great Expectations, the entire story is the story of the characters. It’s a life tale. Without Pip, Estella, Joe, Miss Havisham and the others, there would be no story at all. No one of them could be removed without severely affecting the outcome of the story, or potentially rendering it utterly impossible.

As much as I love the Harry Potter series, the same can’t truthfully be said, and this is evidenced by the film series: so many characters from the books were excised, condensed or changed that in some places things seem almost utterly different. Did Harry really need Hermione and Ron? Arguably not—the relationship between the three central characters, whilst important, doesn’t necessarily drive the story. Harry could have been attributed the characteristics of his two friends, and the battle against Voldemort and evil would have remained relatively unchanged.

Frodo and Sam—who really needed the other more?

Frodo and Sam—who really needed the other more?

To a lesser extent, the same could be said of The Lord of the Rings. Did Frodo really need Sam? Arguably, Merry and Pippin were more crucial to the plot than the relationship between these two main characters, for they encouraged the Ents to war, without which Helm’s Deep likely would have fallen.

And it makes me wonder about the direction of my own story. In some ways, The Redemption of Erâth is, like Great Expectations, the story of a single man’s life, from childhood to old age (much of which we have yet to see). But I’m starting to wonder if the story is too plot-driven; how much does the plot rely on the relationships between the various people of the world I’ve created? As far as I can see (and bear in mind, I can see a little further than you, the reader, at the moment!), there are only three people in the entire story that absolutely must exist for the story to be; much like Harry Potter only ‘needs’ Harry and Voldemort, or The Lord of the Rings only ‘needs’ Frodo and Sauron. At least I have more than that, but when I think about a masterpiece like Great Expectations, I realize that every one of those eighteen characters absolutely must be there, or the story fails. And it makes me wonder—where does my own story lie?

Which do you think is better—character- or plot-driven fiction?


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Thought of the Week: Twice in a Row? Never.

blogger11Just last week I mentioned that I’d received a Beautiful Blogger award from the delightful Factorymaid.

What are the odds – honestly, what on earth are the odds – that this week I’d receive the Very Inspiring Blogger award?

Yet that’s exactly what happened, thanks to Saronai. She said she likes my photos (hee hee), and apparently I write some thoughtful articles. I’m not sure which one she found thoughtful (or which one was inspiring – if you find out, let me know), but I feel honored nonetheless to think that I could be having such an impact on someone else out there. That’s always a fuzzy feeling (fuzzy; imagine that coming from me).

Newly followed, but he shares a lot of beautiful photos and some thoughtful articles as well.

So it seems I am once more pressed to relate seven interesting things about myself, so that you can all get a few more laughs at my expense. I will again remind everyone that I don’t participate in the final requirement of these awards (nominate further bloggers) because there are far too many deserving people out there. My personal inspirations, as always, are listed at the bottom of every post under Discover Others.

So here goes:

  1. A Lego insect is staring at me.
  2. I have never read A Tale of Two Cities. I don’t know why, and I feel bad about it.
  3. Paper is my enemy. It surrounds me, and threatens me.
  4. A-flat is my favorite note (but not G-sharp).
  5. There are 25 Stephen King novels on my bookshelf. I really need to get more.
  6. I nearly died skiing off-piste when I was about twelve. My ski got caught in a snow bank and came off, and slide down the slope toward a sixty-foot cliff. I caught a rock about three feet from the edge. The terror was nothing compared to what I felt when Little Satis was born.
  7. My wife is one of the most amazing and amazingly infuriating people I’ve ever known. She deserves better than me and I am reminded of this every day, and am grateful. Even if I don’t show it.

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Tales of Despair: Expectations of Misery

In 1860, a fifty-year-old novelist sat down to write what he later came to call his favorite story; the best he wrote. It was a story of mystery, of abuse, of abandonment and heartbreak; a story of joy and misery, and of despair. It had the gravely misleading title of Great Expectations.

Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870) was no stranger to abuse, neglect and misery. From a wonderful and idyllic childhood, he was thrust brutally into the world of child labour at only twelve years of age, when his father was imprisoned for debt. He worked desperately, in filth and dust, ten hours a day, for six shillings a week: this would be the equivalent of £17 ($26) today. This would indelibly mark him for the remainder of his life, and it was only his own internal strength that kept him alive during this bleak time.

The influence of this impoverished upbringing made itself known throughout so many of his novels, from A Tale of Two Cities to Oliver Twist. Along with this misery grew an unfortunate dislike for women – born from his mother, who even after her husband’s debt was paid, would not let young Charles leave the blackening warehouses.

And in Great Expectations, we see all of this come alive. This is a story of innocence destroyed, and the greatest tragedy is that it is destroyed willfully, wantonly, malevolently, the desolate outcome of a scarred and heartbroken woman, whose sadness turned bitter, and then turned to hate.

And so from the outset, from the first page, we are shown that poor, little Pip, who has never done wrong to anyone – who feels a great guilt for stealing a single pie to feed a terrifying and starving convict – is destined for a life of torment and shame, wherein his very innocence is the thing that leads those around him to take such destructive advantage of him.

There is, awfully, no expectation of greatness in the story. Poor Pip, throughout his childhood, is torn, lost in blind admiration for the cold Estella, ashamed of his own upbringing, and bearing the agony of the emotional torture Miss Havisham and Estella put him through, daily. All the while, he lives in mortal fear of the escaped convict, haunted by nightmares that he might return, might kill him, and destroy his family.

Even his family is a failure for him. His sister, resentful that Pip should be burdened upon her, treats him as a dog, punishing him for the slightest of transgressions. Worse, she treats her own husband equally, and the household is home to misery.

As Pip grows older, and enters into a mysterious fortune, promised to him upon his twenty-first birthday, he fights desperately to become the gentleman he is certain will win Estella’s heart, never knowing that Miss Havisham, in her cruelness, has ensured from her youngest years that Estella has no heart to give. We know this, and we feel the agony that Pip relentlessly pursues this impossible dream.

As the tale progresses, we learn that even Miss Havisham, for all her cruelty, is herself only the victim of trauma herself; the wedding dress, tattered and faded, that she wears for the remainder of her life, is that which she had worn the day she was to be wed; the day her fiancé stole, and killed, her own heart.

And the greatest, most heart-wrenching tragedy of all, is that the one, the only person that would show Pip kindness – the only person who has ever truly loved him – is himself the victim of torment from none other than Pip himself. In his shame of a common upbringing, Pip shames his own father-figure, the simple, honest Joe. Joe, who bears Pip’s harsh words year upon year, and never once voicing complaint against him.

Great Expectations is, for me, the single greatest work of literature of the past two hundred years. I realize that it was merely popular fiction at the time it was written, but its tale of lost love and despair has transcended the years, and is as inspiring as it is heart-wrenching.