Writing Tip of the Week: Purposeful characters

No matter what type of fiction you’re writing, characters are essential to the story.  They engage the reader, generating empathy, sympathy, and connection.  Your characters must serve a purpose within the framework of your story’s world.

As writers, it takes time to craft, shape, and mold our protagonist, antagonist, and other characters into the overall story arc that we have created.  We shouldn’t be wasting creative energy creating superfluous characters who have no reason to be in the story.  

Here are some tips to help you eliminate aimless and purposeless characters from your story.

Take Inventory

Who’s who, and why are they there?  If you are in the beginning stages of writing your story, take time to establish your main characters, secondary characters, and background characters on a spreadsheet or piece of paper.  Do they serve an essential function in the story?

If you have already written your story, take inventory of your characters as you read through.  Do they all serve a purpose?  Is there anyone that doesn’t belong or isn’t really essential to the story?

By creating a spreadsheet, you can list who the characters are, their role, and how they tie into the story.  If you find characters that serve no critical function or role, you may want to cut them because…

More Characters = More Problems

Taking on an ambitious fiction project can be exciting.  Still, you also have to make sure that everyone you introduce has a reason for existing and serves an essential role in your story.  The more characters you bring into the mix, the harder it can be to keep track and keep things focused.

Limiting the number of characters can help keep the story and its conflict focused, so you don’t get lost in the weeds, which reminds me…

Where’s the Focus?

Your story has a main storyline with a protagonist working toward a goal amidst numerous obstacles.  That should be your primary focus as you write.  Find yourself deviating too much into subplots and side quests with other characters?  It may be time to either rethink the protagonist or move those other characters into their own story.

If the subplots tie directly back to the main character and their story, that’s fine.  But if you do notice that what they’re doing has zero impact on the main narrative, it’s time to cut it.

Superfluous Characters

Are there characters you’ve created that don’t really go anywhere or serve any real purpose within the story?  Maybe you wrote an elaborate backstory for a Starbucks barista that the main character encounters on their journey.  But, if they are in one chapter and never seen or mentioned again, you may want to trim out how they saved their grandma and her cat from a space heater fire in the fifth grade. 

However, if the barista’s backstory serves a key role in the story later on, and the character comes back to help save the day, they serve a purpose.  Just make sure that if you put in the time to provide lots of detail on a specific character, the reader has a reason to be given that information.

Elevate or Eliminate?

If your creative mind has crafted a complex side character who initially has no real purpose in the overall story, you have a few options:  

  • You can cut them out of this story and move them to one where they can play a more significant role.  
  • You can elevate them and combine their character and attributes with a less-than-stellar secondary character who may need some extra life.  
  • Or you can see how this character’s current role can be elevated through further interactions with the protagonist and the main story.

There are ways to make it work, but the character can’t detract or deviate from the main story.

Should My Protagonist Have a Pet?

I’ve seen this brought up before, and it’s an interesting question.  The answer is simple: only if you are willing to have the main character’s dog or cat be a part of the story.  You can’t just introduce the reader to the protagonist’s dog in one chapter and never mention them again.  Once you commit to your main character being a pet owner, you have chosen to keep that pet as a part of the story.

So, if your main character travels the world on quests, it’s probably best to keep the pets out of things. Otherwise, readers may wonder, “Who’s watching Rex?  Is the dog okay?  I know cats are independent, but she’s been gone for three weeks!”  

Read, Read, Read

Skim through novels and see how different authors set up and establish their various characters.  Some will be more detailed than others, but the key to this research is to identify how main characters, secondary characters, and others are described throughout the story.  

Whether you’re writing a short story or short film, a novel or a screenplay, knowing who your characters are and their purpose is essential to keeping the story moving and the reader or viewer engaged.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you in two weeks!

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