Your story lives and breathes through your characters. Through them your premise, idea and your plot come alive. Characters give your story meaning; they draw in the reader who lives the journey through them. Without them you wouldn’t have a story—you’d have a treatise.
Here are some questions you need to ask each of your characters:
- Will the story fall apart or be significantly diminished if you disappear? If not, you don’t need to be there; you aren’t fulfilling a role in the book. Hugo award winning author Robert J. Sawyer reminds us that “story-people are made-to-order to do a specific job”: they tell a story. In real life, people may act through no apparent motivation, be confusing, incoherent and make pointless statements or actions. Story characters show more clear motivations, coherence, and consistency. They don’t clutter your story with muddle and confusion like real people do. They fit into your story like a major puzzle piece.
- What is your role? (e.g., protagonist, antagonist, mentor, catalyst, etc.). Each character fulfills a dramatic function in your story. You can’t just be there because you’re cute. Well, ok, maybe. But even being cute can and should provide a dramatic function in the story by exploring how that quality is viewed and treated by others. As with setting, which serves a similar purpose as character in story, every aspect of both minor and major characters interact with and illuminate story theme, premise and plot.
- What archetype do you fulfill? In the “hero’s journey” plot approach, each character fulfills one to several archetypes, which help define how they service the plot and theme of the story. The mentor archetype, for instance, generally believes in and enables the hero on his journey. The threshold guardian, on the other hand does not have faith in the hero and obstructs him on his journey. The hero archetype, usually on a quest (for truth, forgiveness, home, victory, faith, etc.), must negotiate her world of archetypes to reach her destination.
- How do you contribute to the major or minor theme of the book? This is particularly relevant for all major characters and their associated sub-plots. Sawyer stresses that “your main character should illuminate the fundamental conflict suggested by your premise.” All other characters, in turn, either help reflect the main character’s journey or the overall story premise and theme. If your book is about forgiveness, each character helps illuminate your exploration of this theme.
- Are you unique? If the reader can’t distinguish you from other characters, chances are you need to be eliminated because of point number 1 anyway. In order to contribute to story, characters must provide a sufficiently distinguishable feature, complete with sub-plot, on the story landscape. The more varied and rich the landscape is, the more interesting it will be. Fictional characters achieve distinction through individual traits that readers recognize and empathize with. Authors use vernacular and body language to achieve colorful fictional characters (find my previous posts on narrative voice for more on this).
- What is your story arc? Do you develop, change, and learn something by the end? If not, you will be two-dimensional and less interesting. This is just as true for minor characters as for main characters. The more characters you imbue with the depth to develop, the more multi-layered your story will become. This is because each character and her associated arc provides her own perspective to your theme. This is what is truly meant by “richness” — not the richness of infinite detail, like a baroque painting, but of infinite meaning like an impressionist work. Choose your minor characters as you choose your major characters.
- What major obstacle(s) must you overcome? You need these to struggle and “grow” and change; otherwise there is no tension in the story, no development and movement and no story arc. Your character will be like a still-life with no movement, no direction and no interest. The more your character changes over a story, the more she will be noticed and remembered.
- What’s at stake for you (theme), and for the world (plot), and how do these tie together? If a writer is unable to tie these together in story, the story will fail to evoke emotional involvement and empathy. It will lack cohesiveness and will not give the reader a fulfilling conclusion with ultimate satisfaction through the character’s journey related to theme (the hero’s journey, essentially).
Characters help the writer achieve empathy and commitment from the reader. Characters are really why readers keep reading. If the reader doesn’t invest in the characters, she won’t really care what happens next. It is important to be mindful of the emotional and narrative weight of a character and achieve balance between characters. For instance, the foil of the protagonist should carry equal weight; otherwise the reader won’t believe the match-up. Equally, a large cast—often used in epic fantasies or historical pieces—can be used successfully, but only if each character is given a clearly distinguishable personality and role.