Make Every Character Count

When creating characters for a story, whether it’s a novel, short story, screenplay, play, etc., remember that every character you introduce must serve a purpose in the story.  It’s pointless and a waste of time for you and your audience to have to deal with characters that have no reason for existing within the context of the story being presented.

Yes, there are different types of characters in a story that serves a multitude of purposes.  But even Henchman #3 has a reason to be in the story. If he’s just there doing nothing and has no purpose in fighting the main character or helping to escalate the obstacles for the main character than they should be removed ASAP.

Your main character is surrounded by supporting characters.  Those characters exist to help the main character, to support the main character, to give exposition and context to the main character and their world. They, in essence, ground the main character in the reality of the story. 

The antagonist exists to upend the world of the main character, and the characters associated with them are there to cause chaos for the protagonist as well.  They serve a purpose in the story: to help drive the action and conflict of the narrative and create obstacles for the main character.

Utility characters are those that the main character interacts with that often help the main character in some basic way: a cab driver; a cop; a barista; a witness who heard something.  They help propel the story forward but they aren’t integral to the main character’s overall growth over the course of the narrative.  On TV shows, these are also usually the random characters that pop up in an episode only to be killed off so the main cast can stay in-tact.

If you are taking the time to create and write about a character, they must serve a purpose that serves the main character on their journey.  Don’t spend hours creating a random character who appears in one chapter who is fascinating and clever, only for them to never be seen again.  If this does happen when you’re writing, maybe save that character for another story or integrate them more into what you’ve written.

It’s okay to have crowd of people in a story, but don’t get too focused in on who they are as individuals unless the ones you select to describe more have a purpose later on.  For example, if you have a group of protesters, you can give us an idea of what they look like and what they are doing/protesting, but naming them and giving them backstories is only worth your time and the audience’s time if we will see those particular characters later.

The most important characters are your main character and the antagonist.  Everyone else exists to serve them or oppose them over the course of the story.

How do you make sure you are keeping your story focused and on track?  We’ll talk about that topic on Monday!

The Ticking Clock

Have you ever watched a movie or read a book and it never feels like the story is moving toward something?  There’s no big event, no big game or show, no sense of a ticking clock either literally or figuratively?  That lack of a ticking clock can oftentimes result in a meandering story that causes an audience to lose interest pretty fast.

When you set out to create a sense of urgency or stakes – as I talked about in the last post – it’s always good to create a finite end point for your main character to reach by the end of the story.  Do they have to get somewhere by a certain time?  Do they have to find the killer before he strikes again?  Do they have to track down the stolen pygmy goats to get them to the holiday festival?

Creating a deadline for your main character will also help you focus your story and your main character’s goals over the course of the narrative.  When you know by what moment the character will know whether not they have reached their goal, you can figure out what obstacles and opposing forces to throw at them that will create the best chaos and sense of urgency for them and the audience.

Let’s use a movie most people have seen: Independence Day.  Here’s a movie that starts with a pretty intense ticking clock: one that shows when the alien ships will launch their first coordinated attack around the world.   That sense of urgency continues with a ticking clock that gives them an eventual goal to disable the alien mothership in order to stop the alien ships on Earth from executing another mass attack.  The film uses literal countdown clocks throughout to show the sense of urgency and to guide the story toward its climax on the 4thof July.

Now, imagine if the ships showed up and David (Jeff Goldblum) discovered that they would attack in six months instead of 28 minutes.  Yes, there is a ticking clock, but the stakes and urgency evaporate.  In six months they could evacuate all the major cities and probably find a way to defeat the aliens prior to their first attack. 

So, as you develop your story, try and see if there is some event or final battle your main character can be moving toward in order to create a deadline with a sense of urgency.

What Are Your Story’s Stakes?

What’s at risk if your main character doesn’t achieve their goal by the end of the story?  In other words: what are the stakes?  Will they lose their life?  Will someone they need to find lose theirs?  Will the serial killer strike again?  Will the world end?  Will they lose the knitting competition? 

Stakes are what keep your main character – and your audience – motivated to keep going.  If the stakes are too low, then your audience begins to wonder what’s in it for them if they keep watching or reading.  And if the stakes for your main character are so minimal that they can see the solution to their problem will be an easy one, then there really is no conflict or dramatic tension in the narrative to drive the main character forward.

When you think about the stakes and the obstacles your main character must face to reach their goal, ask yourself if they are challenging enough to actually elicit change and growth in your main character.  Will they have to sacrifice something?  Will they have to change their behavior or an aspect of themselves in order to reach their goal?  And what will it mean for them if they don’t reach the goal and the stakes result in failure?

When it comes to stakes, it’s okay to paint your main character into a corner.  It’s okay to give them a challenge that seems insurmountable to overcome.  In doing this you create a heightened level of tension that in turn keeps your audience glued to the screen or page.  How will they get out of this jam?  Will they have help?  How will overcoming this obstacle help them when the next one appears?

Also, too, remember that stakes are relative to the story you are telling.  If your main character is determined to win a quilting bee, the stakes probably won’t be: Win the bee or the world will be destroyed.  On the other hand, if the world is at stake, there should be a sense of urgency driving your main character to act, which will also create a sense of urgency in the audience.

And when it comes to creating urgency, nothing helps better than a Ticking Clock, which we will explore on Thursday!

Have You Heard About NaNoWriMo?

This coming Thursday, November 1, 2018, National Novel Writing Month begins.  If you have never heard of it, I encourage you to take part in NaNoWriMo, which is a worldwide event where writers are encouraged to sign-up and write 50,000 words between November 1 and November 30.

This is a great way to create a writing routine and discipline yourself into writing every day.  It’s also a great way to get a jump start on a rough draft of a new story, or even to motivate yourself to finish one you have already started.

Either way, it’s an opportunity to have a set writing goal that will keep you motivated to reach that 50,000-word mark by the end of November. 

You can sign-up here at the official NaNoWriMo site and check out the other stuff they offer.

Happy Writing!

A Closer Look: Antagonists, Part Three

As writers, much like actors, we are given the unique opportunity to live as many different lives as we can imagine and create.  It’s a power that enables us to explore new lands, create jaw-dropping scenarios, and live vicariously through the senses of those whom we could never be in real life.

And that’s why as a writer you should embrace your antagonist 100%.

This is your chance to live in the skin of someone who can do and say things you wouldn’t do and say.  This is your chance to cause chaos and in a peaceful world.  This is your chance to disrupt your main character’s normal life and give them a reason to fight for their return to normalcy. 

Think about your favorite movie, TV, or book antagonists. Someone had to create them, and someone definitely had fun writing them.  This is your chance to have the same level of fun.  It doesn’t mean that you have to agree with or condone the character’s actions, but you can explore what it would be like to engage in those actions and see the resulting chaos that ensues.

This is why it’s important to enjoy what you write and enjoy the characters that you write. 

In that rough draft, don’t be afraid to “go there” with your characters.  You can make your antagonist as heartless, as nasty, as evil, and as morally reprehensible as you want.  Then, if you feel it’s too much, scale it back when you revise the story.  Never edit or second-guess yourself as you write a rough draft. 

Allow your creative mind to take that journey into darkness with your antagonist.

In doing this, you will help mold and shape a stronger force for your main character to challenge and battle as the climax of the story nears.  You want your audience to believe that the main character has truly met their match, and that there may be no way to defeat this opposing force no matter how strong the protagonist appears to be. 

Give us a reason to doubt that the protagonist will win in the end.  This creates a sense of tension and suspense in the audience’s mind, which draws them even deeper into the story.

Whether it’s a story about a pie baking contest or one with world-ending stakes, the main character needs a strong, dimensional, and intriguing antagonist to compete against in order to create strong conflict and dramatic tension. 

Embrace your antagonist as much as you do your protagonist and your story will be all the better for it.