Hello! It’s Kelsey again. I hope you’re experiencing a great year so far. I’m currently coming up with a cast of characters for a new novel (what a fun way to launch a new year!)—so you can trace the origin of this post.
|(Image courtesy of jannoon028 at freedigitalphotos.net)|
How do we know how many characters our stories need? Planning characters doesn’t usually involve an exact formula; some rise organically out of the plot, others are the story so their appearance is never a surprise. And numbers aren’t important; whatever best serves our project is the best. The important thing is that each character is fully a person (even if they’re animals or flowers or what-have-you), someone whom readers can see and hear. Right, there may be exceptions to this, such as if we’d like to make the point that a group of people are nothing but names or bodies, but those aren’t the kind we’re discussing.
So, if we give our characters a presence, we want to make sure they feel real to the reader. I’m going through a DVD course from the Great Courses called “Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques,” so what follows is based off a cool idea from the professor. (Consider this a teaser and endorsement, because, so far, I would really recommend this course!) We want readers to feel that if they decided to shift their focus from the main character (MC) to any side character, they could follow that person’s life just as easily as the MC’s. One way to do that is to give the minor characters a definite personality and motivation, too, even if it’s something as simple as a store clerk wanting to do their job (though that can lead to interesting questions … why are they so determined to do their job? So they don’t get fired? What would happen if they got fired? Do they have a family? Could it open up a new career? And on the questions roll …). Every character in a story should want something, because that’s like real life.
What helps with creating realistic people is to think of all characters as potential lead roles. That makes their personality suddenly more important, doesn’t it? Our stories are mini worlds, after all, and every person on Earth has their own story. But with all this, we have to try not to get sidetracked—though a minor character can make a story take a wonderful twist, so we shouldn’t rule it out completely—because, as with all things, balance is key. A bite-sized description for a minor character doesn’t have to lead anywhere, but merely suggest that it could lead somewhere, to give readers the feel of a full fictional world. While evaluating the inhabitants, you may even be prompted to leave out a number of them because you find they don’t have any motivation or purpose and simply clutter the story—too many characters can be a problem. Like all things in fiction, characters must be chosen wisely. Perhaps a list or a chart of characters, their roles and motivations, will help you accomplish your goal of creating a deeper, more satisfying world for your readers.
Do you have an interesting method of coming up with characters? An anecdote of how someone important arose in your story? Do you ever find yourself getting sidetracked by an intriguing minor character?
For some inspiration on developing characters, see these excellent posts by Caitlin Hedgcock and by Perry Elisabeth!
Kelsey Bryant is an author, blogger, and copy editor who loves the Lord. She revels in many things: the beauty of God's Word, the music of English, the wonder of nature, the joy of creativity, the freedom of motion, the richness of literature, the intrigue of history ... and much more. To learn more about her, visit her website or blog.