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!

When it Comes to Your Writing, Who’s Really in Control?

Where do you want your characters to go…or where should they take you?

So, you’ve finally done it. You’ve completed your outline for your novel or short story and you’re ready to sit down and write.  Your fingers are poised over the keys of your computer – or typewriter, if you’re old school – you take a deep breath, and dive into the story.

As you start to dig into story, you realize that your main character is taking you down a storyline that you didn’t outline or anticipate.  In fact, it’s almost as if your protagonist is in control of what they’re saying and doing.  It’s as if you are only there to transcribe the events as they unfold.  A mere voyeur to a story you hadn’t even planned.

This is a good thing!

I’ve had these moments happen many times while writing.  I think I’m going to take the story one place due to planning ahead, and then the main character takes the wheel and we go off on a weed-infested dirt road that I never even knew was there.  It’s at these moments while writing – especially during the drafting process – that it’s best to just sit back and see where things go.

Sometimes you’ll hit a dead end.  Sometimes you’ll learn something new about the character and the choices they make that can have an impact on the story and in turn the character’s interactions with others in the story.  The key during these moments is not to fight the creativity taking hold of your brain and your fingers as the rapidly pound the keys to get every sentence down as fast as possible.

And it’s not only a great method of discovery for your main character.  Supporting characters can benefit and develop greatly during this process of creative surrender.  Maybe you have a character who you feel isn’t strong or dimensional enough; but while writing a sequence that includes them they begin to say things and do things that make them far more interesting and instrumental to the overall story.  That’s always an exciting time!

While I do support writing outlines, I also believe that as creative people we must allow ourselves to give into the temptation of going where our roadmap doesn’t.  Even if you do return to the road you previously paved, you may have learned a thing or two that can benefit your characters – and your story – in the long run.

Have you ever let your characters take the wheel and take your story down a trail you never expected? Leave a comment and let me know!

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!