Writerly Wednesday–Multiple Main Characters and Word Count

Although I took all of last week off (I already had off Christmas Day and the day after), I felt pretty harried most of that time. There were presents to wrap, goodies to bake, research projects to work on, paintings to, uh, paint, and so on. I’d been storing up all these plans, and they just didn’t fit into one week.

I did, however, find time to complete another editing pass of The Cotton Wars (that’s the working title). As a bit of background, this novel is the story of the parents of three characters in my (as yet unpublished) Antebellum novel, Channing. It takes place between 1829 and 1837 in Philadelphia and Georgia. And because of the backstory told in Channing, it was always clear to me that there would be four main characters: Charles Daniels, his twin brother Archie Daniels, a young actress named Emily Everly who works at their theater in Philly, and a slave woman named Betty. All four are equally important, and I consider them co-main characters.

As I got going, I decided to see how much face-time, so to speak, each character got. In my Excel spreadsheet, I marked from whose point of view each chapter was told and in another cell the word-count.

[Aside: I left chapter 1 blank because it was ambiguous whether the POV was Charles’s or Archie’s. This worried me at first, but as I went along and marked down the POV characters and word count and main events for each chapter, I realized something: it made perfect sense for the first chapter to be more ambiguous. After all, at the beginning of the novel, the brothers are basically indistinguishable to outside observers and are very much in sync with one another. Needless to say, that changes.]

When I reached the end of this round of edits, I had an interesting dataset on hands. Oh, Excel, you sexy beast, you, spitting out data on the fictional characters I created. Ahem. Uh, yeah. With the data, I could show how much of the story was told from each character’s perspective: how many words, how many chapters, what percentage.

Out of 104,100 words (I rounded each chapter to the nearest fifty; Word tells me the total word count is actually 103,950):

38,800 words or 37.3% were from Archie’s POV; he has 19 chapters

29,600 words or 28.4% were from Emily’s POV; she has 13 chapters

20,050 words or 19.3% were from Betty’s POV; she had 13 chapters

14,750 words or 14.2% were from Charles’s POV; he has 10 chapters

900 words or .8% were ambiguous; this is 1 chapter

Which I have to admit reflects, to some degree, my opinion of the characters–not necessarily as “people” but as characters. Archie is extremely fun to write, and I think is the most honest character in the manuscript. But he screws up multiple times and really wouldn’t be the kind of person I’d want to spend time with. Emily is slightly out of her mind and given to saying and thinking and doing startling things. She gets boring after a certain point, and more or less drops off the map–poor girl–until she’s needed again to die. Betty is a fascinating, complicated character, but because of who she is, she doesn’t have a great deal of agency (she’s a slave). That limits me with her, plot-wise, and a lot of the time we spend with her is in her head–which is fine, but spending too much time in anyone’s head without any actual action can be tedious. When she finally takes charge, she gets interesting and the story turns more fully to her. That is where the bulk of her word count comes from. As for Charles, well, he’s a deluded bastard who barely ever realizes his faults. I don’t like him very much, though I think he wants to be a good man and just doesn’t really know how. It’s ironic that he’s the one with the lowest word count even though he’s the only one of the four still alive at the end.

Oh, damn, did I spoil it? Well, that’s okay. If you’ve glanced at Channing (The Cotton Wars is a prequel), you’d pretty much know everyone’s fate. And anyway, they were all born around 1800. Clearly, they all died at some point.

Using a spreadsheet proved to be a nice way not so much to rearrange the plot (I already had it where I wanted it) but to lay out what I already had for analysis. It helps to have one list of chapters, POVs, and events, on one page. It also gives me a place to make any notes of little things I need to fix or check on (to eliminate continuity errors, for instance). It was a really useful exercise, and I might just do the same thing with Channing . . .

If you’re a writer with a manuscript, this kind of analysis might be helpful or at least interesting.

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