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Limit the Cast

Because of the dearth of science fiction novels I’ve been reading a lot of fantasy recently, and it’s not my preferred reading material.  I prefer straight up science fiction.  So I tried Night’s Dawn series by Peter Hamilton.  (It’s a trilogy in Britain, but published as six volumes in the U.S.)

I have taken to just putting aside books I don’t enjoy and not finishing them.  The fact I finished all six books says there was a lot to like in this series.  Unfortunately there was a lot to dislike.  These books actually offer some insight in What Not to Do When Writing.

First, what I liked.  This was an extremely well imagined universe, and he took a bold step of combining souls returning from the “Beyond” to “possess” living people set against a space background.  That was cool.  He writes some of the best space battles I’ve every read.  They are exciting, involving and not confusing, and that is not easy to pull off.  He has interesting societies.  I especially liked the bitek colonies with their living ships.  It reminded me of the ships I created for the Takisians in Wild Cards.  He also had a handful of really wonderful characters.  Unfortunately they got lost among the babbling hoard that also accompanied them.

The biggest flaw with this series was too damn many view point characters.  I’m not saying that everything has to be first person with a single narrator, and in fact having only one POV character can also be stultifying.  One of the problems with the Harry Potter books is that we can only discover the world with Harry.   Which means he’s constantly having to just happen along at the right moment to overhear a really crucial conversation.  I think those books would have benefited from broadening out the cast.

But I think going the other direction is a bigger problem.  Literally, every few pages I would be introduced to a new viewpoint character.  Sometimes they existed just to get possessed or die horribly, but I never knew whether I was supposed to invest in these people.  Eventually I couldn’t keep them straight.
One of the problems of writing is having to decide what to leave out.  By trying to show me so many events on so many planets Hamilton ended up undercutting the power of the story.  I became so impatient with this constant parade of new people that I took to skipping entire sections, and it made no difference to my understanding of the overall plot.

When you have an intricate plot you have to work harder if you only have a handful of viewpoint characters.  You have to plot smarter, and know where you are headed in advance.  If you just plunge in writing because you have a cool idea, and you have no idea where that idea is supposed to culminate you’re going to give in to the temptation to throw in a character to help ease your way.  I’m not saying this is what happened with this series, but I have seen it happen with writers of my acquaintance.

It is my belief that people invest in books, especially book series, and television series because they fall in love with the characters.  They want to go on an adventure with those people.  Because readers/viewers care about them they want to see what happens to these characters.  If you just keep bombarding them with a cast of thousands they doesn’t know where to place their energy and allegiances and they end up drifting away.  Look at HEROES.

Daniel Abraham also has an interesting take on reader investment in characters.  He thinks the characters you meet in the beginning of the first book are the ones that readers are going to latch onto.  You can make later characters as fascinating as you like, but the first impressions tends to be the lasting impression.

Someone who had a large cast, but a very few POV characters was Dorothy Dunnett in the Nicolo series.  If you want to see how this is handled by a master check out this series.  It is brilliant.

Now I’ve got to talk about the end of this series, so SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!








To Hamilton’s credit he didn’t hide the football.  It’s right up there in the overarching title of the last two books.  The Naked God.

Basically the closest thing we have to a hero (and Joshua Calvert is very cool) seeks out a mysterious alien artifact to help humanity deal with the possessed.  It’s called The Sleeping God so it literally is a god-like alien.  (We used to make jokes when I worked on Trek that there were four solutions to any Next Gen episode — either Picard would confuse them by surrendering, we would talk them to death, we would “put on a show”, or god-like aliens would appear.)
So, in this case they find a god-like alien artifact, and Joshua goes to talk to the alien artifact and asks for help.  Turns out the Sleeping God is a very chatty artifact, and when Joshua asks why so many souls of dead humans are trapped in the Beyond the Sleeping God gives him a Tony Robbins lecture.

It goes something like this.  “Basically, your problem is that humans don’t believe in themselves, and they don’t have faith in the future.  If you just trusted yourselves, and embraced the future everything would be A okay.”

I found this funny and rather charming, but the book doesn’t end there.  Instead the Sleeping God gives Joshua god-like powers, and he literally sucks the possessing souls out of the living and banishes them.  He then moves around entire _solar systems_ to a more convenient location so we can all learn to get along and have faith in each other and ourselves, and then Joshua marries the rather naive and tedious young girl instead of marrying either of the smart, tough, capable women in his life.  Ah well.  I guess sweet and naive always trumps smart and capable.

The moral of this series for me is always plot before you write.  I think the problem was so intractable and the author had never thought about how to address the problem that only god-like alien artifacts would suffice.  If this had been more carefully plotted I think a number of superfluous characters could have been lost, and that would have made for a more streamlined and enjoyable read.

I feel badly taking issue with these books because the series kept me up nights, and I read to the end which I won’t do if a book doesn’t hold my attention.  But I urge anyone who is interested in writing not to fall into the too many notes…. er characters Herr Mozart trap.  It really kills the momentum of the story.

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