Writing The Seven
Or: how I learned to stop worrying and love ensemble casts
When work on THE FALLEN began, I had several problems, but one of them was that I needed to introduce seven new characters all at once. I'd mentioned in THE OUTSIDE that there were seven other former students of Dr. Talirr's, besides Yasira, who'd tangled with the angels in certain ways. And I did not want to forget those seven, especially given that they all played a minor, indirect, anonymous role in THE OUTSIDE's big finish. It didn't seem right to use them that way and then forget about them. I needed the Seven to play a role and come into their own.
But also, that meant seven new characters arrgh why do I do this to myself. Not just seven new characters total in the novel - that can happen naturally, as I find a need to invent people to play particular roles - but seven new characters who were all in basically the same role, a team of friends with similar backgrounds helping the protagonists.
I thought right up until THE FALLEN's release day that the Seven weren't going to land especially well as characters, but when the book actually came out a lot of people told me they enjoyed the Seven and other side characters - sometimes even more than the protagonists (who, admittedly, are going through a bit of a mental health slog and carrying the weight of the world).
Here's what I did to create the Seven and bring them into their own.
1. Make a List
I knew I needed to have seven characters, because I (foolishly) stipulated that number in THE OUTSIDE. So I made a list of seven entries and I got to work. At this point I wasn't trying to get deeply into the characters, just to sketch out the very basics. This included:
A country of origin or ethnic grouping (because different characters in the world of THE OUTSIDE have different names and appearances based on where they're from; the Seven all did graduate school on Anetaia, so I wanted a lot of them to be Anetaian, but I also wanted a mix, because people regularly travel to other countries for graduate school both in that world and the real one.)
A super power, because I knew I wanted each of them to have some supernatural ability granted to them by Outside. This list (warning: TVTropes link) was helpful for brainstorming about super powers, especially since I didn't want the abilities to be very focused on combat.
A code name, for ease of reference, based on their super power. Some of these were very obvious ("Prophet" is what it says on the can) and some were not. (I don't remember anymore what the name "Picket" is supposed to have to do with anything. Maybe a picket fence, for demarcating areas? Meh.)
And then I added the secret sauce:
2. Base Them On Someone
Some people are great at coming up with character concepts out of whole cloth. I am not, which is why I almost always base my characters on something. Sometimes another character from RPG or media; sometimes a composite of other characters. Sometimes a minor character grows organically out of their role, like THE FALLEN’s Yonne Qun - in those cases I can say, “Hmm, I need a local leader for Tiv to bring supplies to and talk to about X Y and Z in this scene,” and it’s easy to picture the kind of person I need. But for characters who don’t already have that kind of very narrow niche cut out when I come up with them, it’s a lot harder. So with the Seven, and with certain other characters in the Outside series, I just straight up made a list of people I know in real life and picked some of them.
A major caveat here is that I am not trying to write directly about real people or what I think of them. I'm not lifting intimate, difficult details from those people's lives. (This post is not a place for "Cat Person" discourse, thanks.) It's more about taking a vibe check. What does the person approximately look like? What does it feel like to interact with them - are they loud, quiet, thoughtful, impulsive, high-energy, low-energy, sarcastic, sincere? What would they do in XYZ scenario?
If you didn't want to base characters on real people, you could just make a list of traits like these and come up with arbitrary answers. But that method is too abstract for me and I struggle to imagine what a character is really like based on any such list. Basing characters on people helps me remember the sheer variety of possible people that exist and what their different traits look like on the ground when they're going around, being people, and doing things.
These personal traits then get mixed with what's already on my list (most of my real life friends don't have super powers, for instance) and what results is something a little bit new. It's also a little bit exaggerated - deliberately, because a reader only has limited time to get to know each character, and bold, strong character traits are easier to get to know. If the person who inspired Weaver is a little bit restless and flighty, then Weaver is a lot restless and flighty. If the person who inspired Luellae is a little opinionated and standoffish, then Luellae is constantly opinionated and standoffish, to the point where that helps define her character arc and her reactions to trauma (which the person who inspired her doesn't necessarily have). And so on.
After this step and steps three and four, and the fleshing-out that happens during the drafting process, the characters naturally diverge further from what inspired them and take on a life of their own. I don't think any of the Seven's real-life inspirations are recognizable anymore. If one of them read the book and saw the character who was based on them, they wouldn't necessarily notice anything at all.
3. Create Subgroupings
The Seven are a team, but not everyone on the team is equally connected to everyone else. I found it easier to keep track of everyone when I created connections between some of them and not others. The Four are very close to each other because they were all imprisoned together; Splió and Daeis are in a romantic relationship with each other. Luellae stands a bit apart from the others, without a very close personal connection like that, which feeds into Luellae’s arc as the somewhat discontented, odd one out.
Partitioning the characters like this makes them easier for a reader (and a writer) to keep track of. It’s also realistic - in any friend group, even the most egalitarian, there will be people who are closer to each other than others. Knowing how they connected to each other helped me think about how the Seven would each react to plot events, and how they would build on or counter each other’s reactions.
4. Character Revisions
Writing all these notes about the Seven didn't necessarily fix any of my problems with them in the drafting process, because seven characters is simply a LOT of moving parts. When I wrote the first draft of THE FALLEN I was thinking about the very basics of what goes where in each scene - what do the characters have to do or discuss here? what are the stakes? what is the takeaway? - and setting that kind of thing up took all my attention.
So, even after doing some prep work and getting a sense of who each of these people were, their characterization was flimsy in places. I couldn't pay attention to all seven at once in a first pass. So they spent a lot of time under-reacting, forgetting to say anything meaningful, or not being very distinguishable from each other.
The solution to this, of course, was revisions. The solution to pretty much everything is revisions. It doesn’t actually matter if something is impossible to do in one pass, because as an author you have unlimited passes through the text - or at least, as many as you can squeeze in before you hit your deadline!
In revisions, I made a chart detailing who was in which scene (for a couple of scenes, I even changed who was in them, for various reasons, including “hang on why are the Four not together here? the Four should be together unless there’s a good reason for them not to be, so let’s fix that.”).
Then, for each scene, I picked one of the Seven at a time, and went through and asked the following questions:
What is this character thinking/feeling in this scene? Are the things they say and do on the page consistent with those feelings? If their feelings change, do they change in a comprehensible way (e.g. taking in new information or being convinced by an argument, as opposed to just saying two things that contradict each other) and is that change shown or suggested in some clear way?
Does everything the character says or does feel like "them"? Could they say or do it in a more "them" way? Could they be more satisfyingly distinctive?
Do they react to everything that they ought to react to?
That last one is a big one for me - there are many scenes where I needed the equivalent of a panning shot around the room, showing how the characters as a group responded to something. It didn't always need to be seven whole sentences giving a separate response from each person... but sometimes it did! At minimum, I had to actually think about each person, which is hard to do unless I do it this way and think about them one at a time.
Yes, this does mean that there were certain scenes I had to go through seven separate times (or more, because "characterizing the Seven" isn't the only thing I revised for). Was it annoying to do? Yes. Did it work? Yes. I will definitely be revising this way again.
Meanwhile, here’s some news:
If you missed THE FALLEN’s virtual launch party featuring Janelle Shane, don’t worry! It was recorded on YouTube and you can watch the whole thing.
The audiobook of THE FALLEN is out NOW from Recorded Books - fans of THE OUTSIDE had to wait a few months for the audio version, but for THE FALLEN, there is no such wait!
Autistic Book Party is back - I’ve reviewed Essa Hansen’s groundbreaking space opera NOPHEK GLOSS as well as a bunch of short stories.
On Terribleminds, I’ve written about 5 things I learned writing THE FALLEN.
On Mary Robinette Kowal’s “My Favorite Bit,” I talk about THE FALLEN’s neurodivergent villains.
On John Scalzi’s “The Big Idea,” I talk about THE FALLEN, post-apocalyptic fiction, and mutual aid.
On LGBTQ Reads, I had a wonderful long conversation with RB Lemberg about gender, faith, and diverse themes in both of our work.
Here’s an interview with me on the accessibility website TPGi.
Here are a list of content warnings for THE FALLEN.
THE OUTSIDE was featured on BuzzFeed’s list of 22 Novels Featuring Characters With Disabilities And Chronic Illnesses and on Barnes & Noble Newport Beach’s SciFi Sunday.
THE FALLEN was featured on Shades of Orange, on SciFiPulse, and on Hive.co.uk’s list of key releases for July.