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!

Writing Tip of the Week: Getting into Character

A story needs compelling and engaging characters that change throughout the narrative to keep readers/viewers engaged with the events unfolding before them.  No matter who the character is, it’s essential as a writer to have a strong sense of who they are and where they were before the events of the story you are creating.  Let’s look at a few ways you can do this in the pre-writing phase of your project.

Basic Stats

One of the easiest methods of getting to know your characters is to bullet-point the basics about them.  Name. Age.  Profession.  A few significant events that affected their lives before the story.  Personality traits.  Relationships with others.  Writing these down and having them as a reference can help ensure that characters have continuity throughout your story.

Obviously, you want your protagonist to have a strong arc that allows them to evolve over the course of the story.  But their past and present circumstances aid in dealing with the conflicts set before them and how they reconcile and move on as a character at the conclusion of the story.

I recommend doing this for the protagonist and antagonist and other key characters that are a main part of the story.

Character Biographies

A significant step-up from what I mentioned above is creating detailed and in-depth character bios for your protagonist, antagonist, and other key players in your story.  Create a 500-word essay about your characters, detailing their lives in an A&E Biography manner.  This gives you more creative latitude than the bullet-point method but is more time-consuming.  

This is ideal for historical fiction since you can do the research to find out more about the time period, social structure, environment, clothing, and other key factors that will make your historical novel more accurate.

Backstory Not Included

Should your Stats and Bios be used liberally in your novel or merely as reference material?  The lawyerly answer: It depends.  If what is happening in the story is directly affected by past events in the character’s life, I would definitely mention the relevant elements.  But don’t just do an info dump.  Weave relevant aspects of their past into the narrative or dialogue. 

The reader/viewer must feel that this character existed before the story they are now experiencing.  Your characters shouldn’t begin and end when the current story does.  They should feel like real, active people being observed during a particularly eventful and life-altering time in their lives.

How Did They Get Here?

Our past life experiences influence how we deal with the present.  The same is true for fictional characters.  Who was Tony Stark before he became Iron Man?  Who was Jack Torrance before the events at the Overlook Hotel in The Shining?  What was Starr Carter’s world like before the events in The Hate U Give?  

Dr. Phil has a useful tool that can aid you with these questions in both your own life and in the lives of your characters.  He breaks it down into what he calls The 10/7/5 Philosophy.  Even if you aren’t a fan of Dr. Phil, this method is an excellent tool for getting creating greater depth in your characters:

Ten Defining Moments: In every person’s life, there have been moments, both positive and negative, that have defined and redefined who you are. Those events entered your consciousness with such power that they changed the very core of who and what you thought you were. A part of you was changed by those events, and caused you to define yourself, to some degree by your experience of that event.

Seven Critical Choices: There are a surprisingly small number of choices that rise to the level of life-changing ones. Critical choices are those that have changed your life, positively or negatively, and are major factors in determining who and what you will become. They are the choices that have affected your life up to today and have set you on a path.

Five Pivotal People: These are the people who have left indelible impressions on your concept of self, and therefore, the life you live. They may be family members, friends or co-workers, and their influences can be either positive or negative. They are people who can determine whether you live consistently with your authentic self, or instead live a counterfeit life controlled by a fictional self that has crowded out who you really are. 

Source:  https://www.drphil.com/advice/defining-your-external-factors/

Your characters are the true lifeblood of your story.  They are the ones we care about, empathize with, and follow on their journey as they traverse the hills and valleys of the narrative unfolding before them.  It’s important to take the time to get to know your characters’ history, so you can better understand how they react to their present circumstances.  Then, you can use that information to evolve them into their future selves.

Happy writing, and I’ll see you next week!