What does this character do for your story?

character for reasonIN LIFE, PEOPLE HAPPEN; IN STORIES, YOU WRITE THEM IN

I’m just about ready to start revising the excruciatingly rough draft of Pride’s Children: NETHERWORLD, and my last task is one I thought I wasn’t going to have to do much work on.

Why? Because many of the characters in PURGATORY carry over to NETHERWORLD.

And really, since I am writing a trilogy – split for the convenience of size, not because the stories are separate – you’d think I already had my characters well in hand, and that I would just give them a quick review, add a few, drop a few, and be able to move on.

I’m dropping four characters, and picking up four characters.

It doesn’t seem like much, does it?

And they are minor characters; our main characters, Kary, Andrew, and Bianca will of course be there for the whole, but there are changes, and some of the characters (two of whom come back for Book 3) don’t belong in this volume.

That’s typical, and not at all unusual.

Relationships between characters are half the story

But my plotting software* gives roughly equal space to plot/theme – and characters.

We don’t see the world abstractly. We don’t sit on the front porch and muse about honor.

We compare friends, one of whom acts honorably and responsibly (most of the time), with the one who seems to have an excuse for anything that somehow puts the responsibility for her actions elsewhere.

And from how it hits us, and from what the results of their behavior is, we come to form our own opinion of whether standing up is better than slithering out from under. We understand an abstract concept by its concrete representation in a form our brains are designed to respond to.

Characters are chosen to represent extremes

There isn’t much point in wasting space in a story on two characters who are very similar in their outlooks on life, regardless of how common it is in real life to surround yourself with people you have a lot in common with.

Stories are created from CONFLICT. DRAMA. TENSION.

Stories have word limits. Yes, even long stories like Pride’s Children. If the writer spends too much time belaboring the obvious, the reader starts skipping. Elmore Leonard recommended leaving out the parts people skip.

In Albert Zukerman’s useful book, Writing the Blockbuster Novel, he has an example which stuck with me: Ken Follett, in an early draft, had included two policemen in The Man From St. Petersburg. Zuckerman recommended combining them – and making the single remaining character a much more important personage – to kick up the potential for conflict.

When every word matters, the pages turn more quickly, and the point the writer is trying to make sneaks into the reader’s mind more easily.

In real life, there’d be a whole police precinct full of cops, most of them of similar personality type – those are the people who enjoy police work. But for a story, one is MORE than enough. Unless it’s a police procedural, and the point is to push the in-house conflicts of a group of officers, under pressure to solve a crime, fighting over the best methods.

But in a story we have to be parsimonious in the extreme.

And this means not adding a character to a story unless he or she is there for a multitude of purposes.

Relationships are where the story’s points get made

So the interactions between the characters have to carry their weight.

Ever notice how good dialogue skips all the small talk? In life we spend lots of time inquiring about family and friends, work and leisure activities, before we settle down to something as unpleasant as having a friend on the police force look up a license plate number for us because we have a sneaking suspicion a neighbor is responsible for the new dent in our car door. In a book, the reader would go mad with boredom!

Rule #1 of writing: Don’t bore the reader!***

But the dialogue or physical interaction that remains then has to serve as many purposes as possible: information exchange, state of mind, difficulty in responding to a request that is faintly illegal, status of the friendship… plus class and education and income level of the two participants…

And to set these up, the writer should know why she picked these two particular characters, and what exactly the reader should take out of the exchange.

Setting the web of character interactions into place

1 – For continuing characters interacting with continuing characters, the story must change. We already heard what they had to say in Book 1.

2 – For new characters interacting with new characters, the story must explain why these new characters at all, and what has changed/what has remained the same in the story that the new characters reveal.

3 – For interactions between old and new characters, what is new to the story.

Not surprisingly, planning takes time and a fair amount of effort

I found myself extremely reluctant to go into the relationships when I realize how many of them there were. Then I had the above talk with myself.

So the past two weeks I’ve been thinking about characters, what gets space in the story and why, and what can be left out – because somebody has to do it.

I’m almost to the end of it, and it’s been fascinating.

And since I’ve been having the best time planning to use all this.

I almost missed it due to that reluctance (missed doing it as a unit, because I would have certainly had to do it in every scene) to dig into what seemed finished. It wasn’t.

I hope readers like the results.

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*Thanks to ShareAsImage.com for the ability to create graphics

**Dramatica – which allows me to look at a tiny piece of the puzzle at a time (drat that brain fog) and have some hope that the whole will make sense when I’m done.

*** The only rule that matters, so far as I’m concerned.

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9 thoughts on “What does this character do for your story?

  1. Pingback: What does this character do for your story? | Toni Kennedy : A Writing Life

  2. Janna G. Noelle

    I remember combining characters in the final draft of my WIP’s outline (it took me three tries to get my outline right). You’re right that one is usually enough for any specific type of character.

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  3. Sherry Lee

    Thank you for your excellent post. I am just teaching my daughter to write and this has been helpful in so many ways. I do love your writing, Alicia. I used to be in PR and I really miss the writing aspect of my career. I’m now trying my hand at poetry to satisfy my creative cravings! Thank you, Sherry

    >

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Lovely to have you here, Sherry. And thanks for the nice words.

      Remember – I warn people to be cautious about using any of my fairly extremely controlling methods – they don’t suit most people (though there’s usually something you can use) because most people don’t try to do what I’m doing AND don’t have my limitations.

      The basic concept – that we put characters into fiction for a purpose – is true but not obvious: many writers put characters in as they think of them. And sometimes have to prune the subplots with those characters, or give them their own novel. I’m systematic about it because I find it allows me a lot of freedom if I have a bunch of these character/plot/theme decisions made before I start writing a particular scene.

      Take what you can – and I hope both of you are having fun writing.

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