By Amy Lane
I’m not talking about my desk—although that would send shivers down your spine—and I’m not talking about individual books, because I’m pretty good at wrapping up loose ends.
No—I’m talking about character sprawl.
That saying, “Every character is a hero in his own story,” is apparently the writing-advice-spaghetti that stuck to the inner walls of my brain. If, say, I’m writing a romantic suspense, and some poor imaginary soul has to bite the dust, I’m not okay with them just being corpse number one, or three, or twelve, or whatever.
They need to have a name. We need to feel bad for them. We need to care that they’re gone.
It’s the rule, that I made up just now as I was writing. (Also that Karen Rose talks about when she gives classes on fiction. Credit is due!)
If, say, we need a policeman to move the plot along, well, is this a sympathetic policeman? Is this like, the policemen on Elementary, played by Aiden Quinn and John Michael Hill? We like those policemen—we’ll make them into heroes. What about the policeman that they just arrested on the show. Oh—that guy was a douche-pickle. We’ll write us a villain, and he’ll be great!
And that’s when I run into sprawl.
About six years ago, I wrote Racing for the Sun, which was about Ace Atchison and Sonny Daye, and you should definitely read it if you like gritty romances with heroes who make shady moral choices while motivated by love.
I liked these two guys. Yeah, Sonny was a little bit nucking futz, and Ace was a stoic bastard with a scary one-track mind, but they were good people. (It says a lot about my upbringing that I say that in complete sincerity.)
The thing is, in Racing for the Sun, there was a character named Lee Burton. He was pretty awesome—a Marine, heading into covert ops, he was a romantic suspense version of a superhero. He could do anything—fake ID’s, hiding the bodies, getting them dead in the first place, Ace could call Burton.
So, when I was writing A Few Good Fish, and Jackson and Ellery (the actual couple that heads up that series!) had to involve Ace and Sonny in their investigation, they got in over their heads. I thought, “Hey! I bet Burton could help bail them out! And he’d be working there anyway when he was trying to see who put a hit out on his boyfriend. Crap.”
Because I hadn’t actually written that last book yet. I mean, I’d always meant to. I even plotted it out for a friend of mine. I knew who Burton would end up with and what he’d be doing in A Few Good Fish and why he’d be where my guys needed him when, but oops! Hadn’t written that book yet.
So I got right on that, and that was Hiding the Moon.
So, you see what I mean by sprawl, right?
Because that was one book. And then another. And then another. And the resulting mess is both a bookworm’s favorite friend and a marketing nightmare.
It’s not a series.
It’s not even a crossover.
It’s a sprawl.
And readers both love it and hate it. They hate it because they’re hopping all over creation to buy all those books.
And they love it because when the characters interact together, move independently and autonomously of each other and then interconnect, that’s real. That’s the real life web of friends and acquaintances and coworkers that we deal with every day.
And dammit, we always knew these words on the page were real. We always knew those people who moved in our heads were real.
Having them connect like this just proves our point.
Racing for the Sun came first.
Fish Out of Water, Red Fish/Dead Fish, and A Few Good Fish came next.
Hiding the Moon comes after that.
But in the end, it’s not the order that matters. It’s that every character has his story, and you get to see them all.
That’s the story of… that’s the glory of…