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It's an annoying problem with writing - I've got a bunch of characters that I've written, how do I keep them together for the adventure I want them to go on?

In some stories, this can be quite annoying - reading YA novels for example, where the teenagers save the world, and the adults did nothing, for some reason.

I am unfortunately falling slightly into that trap - my characters are late teens early twenties, so not as bad - one could conceive why they'd be allowed to be involved in big things. However, a lot of my characters don't have a ton of reason to be involved in things. Several of them have been imprisoned their whole lives and have little real world skill, especially as they are embarking on a mission to a country (and environment) that they have never been in before.

Complicating this further is that my fantasy novel is based around two nations - a human industrial era one, and a merfolk one in the adjacent ocean. This makes it difficult for the land and sea characters to interact.

So does anyone have suggestions on how to untangle the massive mess that is story logistics?

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You are going about this backwards.

You seem to have made two independent decisions: You chose characters. And you chose a story. And now your realize that they don't fit together.

What you need to do is develop one from the other. Either you choose characters, and then derive a story from them. For example, if you have characters who have been imprisoned their whole lives and have little real world skill, ask yourself, what events they are likely to get into. You can test some story ideas agains these characters (is it likely that they will ... ?) and thus slowly build your story from where your characters started.

Or you can choose a story and develop characters that fit that story. For example, if you have a plot based around two nations - a human industrial era one, and a merfolk one in the adjacent ocean –, ask yourself, what kind of persons could be involved in that interaction.

If you want to continue with what you have, you might need to make changes to both the story and the characters for a better fit. It is called "killing your darlings". It is difficult for most amateurs to give up on their ideas. Amateur literally means lover, and it is a sign of the amateur that he is infatuated with his own ideas. Professionals don't hesitate to change everything about their project until it flows smoothly.


Interestingly enough, I recently read a trilogy of novels about a concept quite similar to yours. In the YA Aquamarin trilogy by German writer Andreas Eschbach, a misfit teen from a seaside town gets drawn into a conflict between some mer people and the industry that wants to exploit their habitat.

So maybe your characters and story aren't as incompatible as it seems to you.

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  • I think perhaps part of the problem is that I am letting the characters kind of choose their story. They do have shared motivations. Part of the struggle is trying to decide if its the story that I want. I think I also might have too many characters. I have the male protagonist and the female protagonist, the male protagonist's frenemy, the male protagonists real enemy, and then two more side characters all along with them. Oct 29 '21 at 21:20
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    @WasatchWind: You can let the characters choose their own story. The resulting story may or may not be interesting, but you will get some kind of sequence of events out of it, at least. The trick is to introduce a strong enough source of conflict to the story such that the characters have no choice but to do something interesting.
    – Kevin
    Oct 30 '21 at 4:28
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In order for characters to cooperate, they need some motivation.

That motivation can be an intrinsic one. For example a common goal they want to achieve or a common enemy they want to defeat.

It can also be an extrinsic factor which compels them to cooperate. Like an authority figure who hired/conscripted these characters and assembled them as a team to achieve some objective of their own. Keep in mind that you now need a reason why those characters are loyal to the authority figure and their cause.

The reason for cooperation can also be an interpersonal one: A character might have a personal connection to another, so they want to take part in whatever they are doing. This might be just for sake of enjoying their company, supporting them in whatever their life-goals are or because they are afraid that they might get harmed if they aren't there to protect them.

Complicating this further is that my fantasy novel is based around two nations - a human industrial era one, and a merfolk one in the adjacent ocean. This makes it difficult for the land and sea characters to interact.

Do they have to interact directly? There are plenty of examples of stories where different characters in different locations are all part of the same story even though they rarely or never actually meet in person. It is very well possible that characters on land and characters on the bottom of the ocean both interact with the same overarching problem without even being aware of one another, while the narrative viewpoint switches back and forth between them.

A good way to turn this into a useful narrative tool is that it provides the opportunity to give the reader a more complete picture of what is actually going on in the world than each individual character has. This can also be used for tragedy: Characters who would have reason to cooperate end up working against each other, and those who have conflicting goals inadvertently end up helping each other. The reader is the only one who knows, but they are powerless to stop these beloved characters from running into their demise.

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Short version individual characters need to have their own reasons for their actions including but not limited to the pursuit of similar goals to others.

Long version: Unless the characters are all pulling in the same direction, either pursuing the same goal, or pursuing different goals to the same end, then there actually isn't a reason for them to stay together past the point of mutual self interest.

In this case it sounds like a number of the characters do have a common purpose, and have a shared a history that inclines them to stick together, especially in a strange new environment. The question you then need to ask is why do their hangers-on stick around or why do they stick with character X who isn't one of them. The reason need not be singular either, in fact it shouldn't be, each individual should have their own reasons for taking on the task at hand with the group they're part of.

To take a classical example the nine members of the Ring Quest have a variety of reasons for becoming involved and also for staying involved; Frodo becomes involved by an accident of inheritance and stays involved because he feels responsible to take on a role that no-one else seems able to. Sam becomes and stays involved for the same reason, his loyalty to his, and in fact his whole family's long time employers the Bagginses. Merry and Pippin become involved out of curiosity and concern about their cousins the Bagginses and stay for reasons that have never been entirely clear to me but I think fall along the lines of "because it needs doing". For Aragorn the whole thing is about destiny and duty. Gandalf is also acting out of duty though possibly a wider duty to all. Boromir, Legolas and Gimli all initially become involved in the matter at the invitation of Elrond. Boromir joins the quest to protect his home. Legolas goes because Gandalf says it needs doing and Gimli because he doesn't trust elves or men and won't see the dwarves left out. So with the possible exception of Merry and Pippin all the members of the fellowship have completely different reasons for being there.

The other thing that individual characters acting towards the same goal often have is differing expectations/definitions of success, this can be used as a source of narrative tension. To return to our Tolkien example Boromir's definition of success is tied to the immediate preservation of Gondor which makes him willing to try to use The Ring while the others are striving towards the greater goal of preserving the world and seek to destroy it.

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  • I think that your comment makes good sense, and I am starting to have an idea of where to go - I think it is a matter of adjusting my protagonist's motivations - and I also may have too many characters. Oct 29 '21 at 21:22

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