Raising squids in the fountain – a character theory

I believe it was Orson Scott Card who first taught me (in an essay that I can no longer find references for) that a good way to make a short story longer is to add more characters and explore the additional combinations in which they can interact. The example of his short story vs. novel length treatments for Ender’s Game is a brilliant object lesson. But as you might suspect, there’s more to the game than simply adding people, and it turns out that how you add them can have dramatic implications for the future of your story. It’s a theory that I’m calling “squids in the fountain,” for want of a better term, but perhaps I’d better explain…

As much as I like Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, I can’t help feeling that he’s drowning in characters. Not an original criticism, to be sure, but it is a great example of the perils of what I am now calling a “story fountain” structure. Consider just the first two or three chapters of A Game of Thrones. In that span of 50-odd pages, we meet about 2 dozen characters. And then, over the remainder of that first book, those characters continue to break off into smaller and smaller sub-groups, until we have something like 10 independent story lines to follow.

This is the gold-medal standard for what I mean by a story fountain. Other writers in the genre do it, too. Tolkien did it. Robert Jordan did it. Lots of very successful writers do it, so it isn’t a problem in and of itself. As Martin demonstrates, this is a very powerful way to explode a story from a simple, humble beginning into a vast, sweeping drama. As the story advances, new characters appear within the context of that story, and as the plot unfolds, these characters are thrust away from the primary action, pursuing their own agendas. These agendas may in fact align with the primary story line, but the key distinction is that they do so in their own geographic context. Jon Snow doesn’t stay go with the family to King’s Landing, nor does he stay behind in Winterfell with the remaining Starks. He goes his own way, heading off to the Wall.

The problem with a character fountain is that if it continues unchecked, you quickly reach the point where you have so many stories on the go that you can’t serve them effectively. With A Feast for Crows (Book 4), Martin acknowledged that he could not serve all his plot lines in a single book, and began clumping them – only advancing the story for some of the characters in each title. By the time I got through A Dance with Dragons (Book 5), I felt that I had read the middle two chapters from 10 really good books, but none of the stories had moved far enough forward to be satisfying. I found myself screaming at Martin in my head, begging him to just call down a comet, kill off about 20 characters, and then continue with a more manageable cast.

But if we want a rich and vibrant tableau, filled with characters of all sizes and shapes, each fit to some specific authorial task or purpose, are we doomed to the attendant trudging pace of the character fountain? Until recently, I had begun to despair that this might be so. But then I noticed something when I was reading Michael J. Sullivan’s excellent Riyria Revelations. Not all fountains blow – some of them suck. Unfortunately, I couldn’t think of a good term for a fountain that sucks, but then when I was drawing my illustrations, one of my daughters mentioned that it looked like a squid, so I give you the “character squid” as an alternative to the “character fountain” structure.

The character squid works in exactly the opposite direction to the fountain. New characters appear in the story, apparently doing their own thing, but sooner or later, their story is drawn into the events at the center of the primary story line. I noticed it first with Myron, the sheltered monk, and then again with Wyatt, and with Thrace, but there are more. Each time some new character’s activities meshed up with the main story, I got a little thrill of connection, and it was at this moment that I realized how draining it is when I experience the divergence of the fountain. Subconsciously, I can feel myself shudder anew with dread – yet another character and and subplot to keep track of.

So in that simple way, I’m starting to see the fountain as a process that slows down the adventure, slowly sapping my reading energy, diffusing it across multiple tracks. But the squid just keeps pulling energy in and adding it to the main sequence. Instead of each new character being a subtle drain on my enthusiasm, squid characters act as little jolts of adrenaline, amping me up and thrusting me forward, waiting for the next little show of character energy. You can even see the effect in the diagrams: which one takes energy out of the main story and flings it into the suburbs, soaking the peasants; and which one sucks the life-force out of every new character and uses it to feed the all-important core?

But is that all this is good for? Of course not. See, the squid doesn’t just offer a way to add new characters without having to explode the plot tree. It also offers a solution to your fountain problem. Got 9 different story lines all taking place on some distant continent, not even remotely connected to the main story line? Don’t reach for the comet – reach for the squid! Pick two of those story lines and have them unexpectedly merge. Then do it again. Each time you do, your readers will get a jolt of fun surprise energy, and better yet, they will also sigh with relief as they mentally shrug off the burden of yet another sub-plot.

I still haven’t decided whether this is an important revelation, or just an obvious tid-bit that everybody else already understands, but I can tell you one thing: it’s important to me, and fans of Strange Places can expect to see the tentacles of the squid making an appearance in Strange People.

But what say you, my writerly comrades? Is this something that was already crystal clear to you? Care to offer a dissenting view?

PS: if any of you know G.R.R. Martin, tell him he’s got a choice: comets or squid? Frankly, I don’t see that he has any other option.