Assembling Your Cast of Characters

You can think of your cast of characters as planets in orbit around the sun – the sun being the inner poetic truth of your story.  As the planets circle the sun, their gravity fields tug at each other’s orbits.  Each planet affects, and is affected by, every other.  They revolve in such perfect balance that if one is removed, or if an extraneous one is introduced, the whole system crashes.


A good story works the same way.  In other words, all the characters exist in relationship with each other, and each character is necessary to the balance.


So you can see that randomly adding a new character is not a simple matter of fleshing out his personality and physical details.  Each new character changes everything.  That’s why assembling your cast of characters is an art.


Juggling a large cast is a challenge even for very experienced writers.  At the most basic level, readers find it hard to remember a lot of different names.  They may have to turn back through the pages to figure out who’s who.  This can spell disaster for your story.


Your goal is to make your entire cast of characters come alive in your reader’s mind so that your story flows smoothly and naturally to its dramatic conclusion.  This is not easy.


So here’s my advice for novice writers:


Minimize the number of characters.  In your first few stories, limit yourself to just two or maybe three characters, but concentrate on portraying each of them fully and developing their relationship well.   As you gain experience, you’ll see what it takes to keep your cast in balance.  Then you can challenge yourself to work with larger casts.


Stick with one protagonist.  This is the person at the center of the story, the person with whom your reader identifies.  Usually, you will tell the story from this person’s point of view.  Two or more protagonists are very difficult to keep in balance, so wait till you gain experience before trying that kind of story.


Stick with one antagonist.  This person opposes your main character and sets up the conflict in the surface plot.  Even if the real conflict is internal – within the heart of your protagonist – you can echo it metaphorically with an external antagonist.  Some stories include many antagonists, but this requires an expert touch.  If not well handled, multiple antagonists will dilute and weaken the conflict.


Make each character’s role distinct.  As you plan your cast, be sure each character plays an essential role that’s different from all the others.  Beware of “twinning.”  For example, say your main character has two friends in whom he confides.  Or say he has to deal with two stone-walling bureaucrats.  If you have two characters who basically perform the same function, ask yourself if you can collapse them into one.  This can give your story a cleaner, sharper focus.


Make each character’s appearance distinct.  In a crowd of faces, the ones you remember are the ones that contrast most in appearance.  In a story, too, contrast helps your reader see each character better.  So differentiate each character with a unique appearance, speech patterns and body language.  And as always, choose these contrasting details to reveal something important about his personality.


Make secondary characters earn their roles.  Name and flesh out your secondary characters only when they are essential to the story.  If a character is simply performing a plot function that doesn’t affect the relationship among your cast, then keep him anonymous.  For example, if you need someone to carry your protagonist’s bag, simply call him the porter and move on.  Don’t give the reader unnecessary details that distract from the real story.


Limit the use of names.  Naming a character  sends a signal to your reader that he will be important in the story, so give names only to key players.  In scenes with minor characters, use “handles” like: the doctor, the tall man, the loud mouth.  That way, the reader won’t feel obligated to keep track of names that really aren’t important.


Choose memorable names.  Unusual names that are short and easy to pronounce are the easiest for your reader to remember, so be creative with names.  Avoid using first or last names that start with the same letter:  Pete, Paul, Pat.  Likewise, avoid names with similar endings:  Cindy, Judy, Suzy.  You see how your reader might get them mixed up.  Make all names start with different letters and end with different sounds.  Examples:  Juan, Leda, Cass.


Use memory flags.  Some essential secondary characters may not appear “on stage” for long periods in your story, so your reader will need a little help remembering who they are.  When you first introduce this type of character, bring him to life with a few vivid details, and give him one memorable “flag.”  This could be a physical feature, a mannerism, a speech pattern, even a smell – whatever fits best.  Then use some version of this “flag” each time he reappears to remind the reader who he is.  For instance, a waxed mustache, a floral perfume, a stutter, etc.

Another option is simply to restate the character’s role in the story:  Anna, the travel agent.  Jones, the cook.


In Conclusion

You can also compare your cast of characters to composition in painting.  A successful composition is an artistic arrangement of contrasting shapes, colors, textures, lights and darks.   Everything is in balance.  Nothing is extraneous.  All the various elements combine to form one evocative whole.  So it is with the cast of characters in a story.

How to Create Compelling Characters

Revealing Character

Story-telling is a process of

Controversy:  Plot v Character
What will happen next? Or What will the character do next?

  • Plot only – engrossing but forgettable
  • Characters only – may not be dramatic enough

The Golden Mean – The best stories are a well-balanced blend of both.

Why we love great characters

  • People yearn to understand human experience
  • Readers empathize with characters taking an active role in their lives – wish fulfillment
  • A believable and sympathetic character gives the reader an anchor
  • Stories with compelling characters remain in our minds long after the last page is read

For characters to be compelling, the reader must have strong feelings about them.
Usually, the main character should be sympathetic.

Conflict is the soul of the story.
The character has a goal.
He meets obstacles.
The result is conflict.

Character vs. Character
Character vs. nature, the system or other entity
Character in conflict with himself

A character’s goal hints at his nature.
His nature is revealed best by the way he responds to obstacles.

What makes a character sympathetic?

  • Weakness – flaws or vices in characters make them appear more human – easier for reader to identify with
  • Strength – Strengths play to reader wish fulfillment


Sympathetic strengths:
Love for another – or many others
Passion for a good cause
Sense of Humor

A well developed character has many traits – slowly revealed

In every scene – let the reader get to know your characters a little better.
Characters must be:

  • Plausible –  Reader must understand and believe their motivations
  • Consistent – act according to their nature, inconsistencies bump us out of the story
  • Unpredictable – surprising but still consistent
  • Dynamic – able to change in response to experience

SWOT Analysis – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats

Characters may be revealed by:

  • Actions
  • speech
  • inner thoughts
  • physical description
  • mannerisms
  • demographic details
  • possessions
  • advantages and disadvantages
  • relations with other characters
  • judgments by other characters
  • details of setting– a person’s home, car or workplace
  • backstory

Physical Actions
Physical actions and reactions show internal feelings.  They range from intense physical movements to small incidental gestures.  Actions can be choices, such as picking up a ringing phone – or not picking it up.  Doing nothing can be an action.

Dialogue is one of the best ways to reveal character.  Dialogue includes not only what is said but how it’s said.  Both are equally important.  Dialogue lets your reader listen in and judge for himself what kind of a person is speaking.

What about Internal Monologue?

Internal monologue is one-sided dialog.  It’s a form of mind-reading that lets the reader peek into the brain of the POV character.  It can be useful, but it can also be problematic for three reason:

  1. People don’t think or feel in words, so the concept is artificial.
  2. Too often, it Tells what the character is thinking or feeling.  It doesn’t Show.
  3. It’s abstract, rather than dramatic – so it slows down your story.

Tip: Use internal monologue sparingly – and follow the rules of dialogue.  Keep it short, and reveal thoughts and feelings indirectly.

Physical Description – the Five Senses
Writers often focus on visual descriptions.  That’s important.  But using the other four senses adds richness to a scene.

Touch – texture of skin, hair, clothing
Taste – a kiss, taste of emotion in the mouth, air, food or drink
Smell – character smells of horses, car engines, cigarette smoke, sweat
Sound – voice, breathing, wheezing, sneezing, scratching, clicking teeth, whistling
Sight – Face, body, clothing, facial expressions, body language, posture

Tip: Use description in small bites.  It’s static and too much will slow the pace.

Back-story adds rich details
Write outside the story
Character biography – the life line

  • key turning points
  • past accomplishments
  • trials and sufferings
  • good deeds
  • bad behavior
  • deep secrets

Tip: Use back-story in small bites.  Like description, it can slow the pace.

What to Avoid

  • Stock characters, archetypes, stereotypes or pawns that merely act out the scenes.
  • Anything Predictable  – write it, recognize it, cut it
  • Shortcuts – Writers can’t be afraid of work.


Write down your main character’s name.
Now just think for a moment about what kind of person he/she is.

Write what he/she smells like.
Write how his/her voice sounds.
Write how his/her hair feels when you touch it.
Write about his/her posture.
Write his/her favorite saying.
Describe one of his/her trademark mannerisms.
E.g., clicking a ballpoint pen when he’s thinking
Write a habit he has that’s annoying.
Write a habit he has that’s endearing.
Write a line of dialog using his personal speech patterns.
Describe an object he always carries, everywhere he goes.


Write down your character’s overall story goal.
Write down one major obstacle to the goal.
Freewrite about how the character responds to the obstacle.

Take-away suggestion: write your character’s life line, birth to death.

Writing Sharper Dialog

“16 Rules of Dialog”

Rules are made to be broken by their masters.


1.    Cut chit-chat, greetings and polite phrases.  Keep dialog lean and muscular.

2.    Speakers are not articulate.  Use vernacular, contractions, etc.

3.    Make different speakers sound different.

4.    Build dramatic tension with contrapuntal dialog.  Each speaker has his own agenda, so the dialog is pulled in two different directions.

5.    Don’t use one speaker’s dialog to advance the other speaker’s dialog.  Example:  “Tell me more.”

6.    Don’t exceed 3 sentences of dialog per speaker.  Exception, a lecture.

7.    Don’t include direct exposition in dialog.

8.    Use deflections and concealing phrases to disguise real meanings.

9.    Tag should almost always be “said.”  Do not invert, e.g., “said she.”

10. To avoid too many “said” tags, use an action (beat) to reveal who’s speaking.  Example:  Jane picked up the dog.  “What’s your name?”

11. Don’t use modifiers to describe how someone speaks.  Make the dialog better, or use an action.  Example:  “Are you okay?” he said with concern.  V.  “Are you okay?”  He squeezed her hand.

12. Avoid misspellings to show someone’s accent – this might be viewed as demeaning.  It’s also hard to read.

13. A dash – implies an interruption.  An ellipsis … implies a fade-out.

14. Don’t overuse name reference.  Example:  “Jane, did you put out the trash?”

15. Avoid two characters speaking the same words in unison.  It’s not believable.

16. Use foul language sparingly, or it loses its impact.

Tips for More Abundant Writing

1. Writing takes TIME. Give yourself time.
2. Make a list of all the reasons why you yearn to write.
3. Look at it every day.
4. If you yearn to write, then you are a writer. Believe it.
5. Put writing first. Write when your energy is highest.
6. Get up early, or stay up late.
7. Pick a starting time, and stick with it.
8. Set a low goal at first – 15 minutes a day, 5 days a week.
9. Close your door. Tell your family this is your private time.
10. Eliminate distractions: turn off the TV, get a babysitter, unplug the phone.
11. Write fast, without thinking. Write about anything.
12. Don’t force yourself to be brilliant. Give yourself permission to write junk.
13. Don’t worry about mistakes. You can fix them later.
14. Go off on tangents. Follow strange paths. Allow yourself to PLAY.
15. Don’t show your work to anyone until you feel ready.
16. Take walks just to think.
17. Join – or start – a writing group. Meet often, and support each other.
18. Read the best writing you can find: the classics, the award winners, the authors you love.
19. Take writing workshops.
20. Read books and articles about writing craft.
21. Writing takes PRACTICE. Keep playing. Keep believing.
22. Notice the improvements in your skills, and feel proud.
23. Your writing time will naturally increase.
24. You will become prolific.

Shaping Scenes – The Heart of a Great Story

What is a Scene?
Just like in a theater, when the curtain rises…you see a scene.  Characters are moving and talking on a stage
Act 1, Scene 1 – each scene has a beginning, middle, end.

Scene is the basic unit of a story.
The majority of every story is dramatized in scenes. So, the better you are at writing scenes, the better your story will be.

A story is like a string of pearls –the string is the story arc – each pearl is a scene.
Space between the scenes – narrative summary
Scene unfolds in real time – narrative summary condenses the time between scenes.

Three Tools to Improve Your Scenes:

1. Shape Each Scene

The wave form is found throughout nature – ocean, sound, light, all energy, breath, life. The wave is the form of a story. Begin with energy, swell to a crest, them subside and release. The wave form is also called the story arc or plot.

Each scene should take the same wave form:
• Beginning – opens with an energetic hook to captivate the reader
• Middle – complications rising to climax – energy level rises steadily – climax is the last scene of the middle section
• End brings satisfactory release or closure, sometimes introducing a hook to the next scene

2. Use the Greek Unities to Sharpen the Scene’s Focus

The Greek Unities – Aristotle
1. One place
2. One time
3. One action

One place
One setting – may be a road or path – still one place
Bring the setting alive with description, 5 senses
Make the setting do work:
• use details to set the mood – tone
• details of setting can reveal character – a person’s home, car or workplace
Use description sparingly – description alone is static, so weave it into the action
One telling detail better than three ordinary ones
Long passages of description must be extraordinary, active, suspenseful

One time
Know your year, season, day, hour – weather, light/dark, energy level

One action
One main event to move the story forward
Conversation only scene – decision, secret revealed, relationship advanced, etc.
Action scene – something changes to move the story forward

Action requires Actors (one or more characters)
Otherwise – not a scene – just an image
Two or more characters – dialogue & action
One character scene – soliloquy/internal monologue – or action

Action centers on a Conflict – a struggle between opposing forces – the soul of drama
The story has a central conflict
Each scene has a smaller related conflict that moves the story forward
3 types of conflict
Character v. Character
Character v. nature or system
Character in conflict with himself.

William Faulkner: “The human heart in conflict with itself…alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about.”

Conflict creates suspense – feeling of uncertainty and tension that makes reader want to know what happens next

3. Make every scene do work for the story
1. Reveal character
2. Move the story forward
3. Develop the theme

Reveal Character
In every scene, let the reader get to know your characters a little better
Each character has a motivating goal or intention for that scene – what he wants
Obstacles to the goal create conflict
How characters react to obstacles and conflict reveals who they are

Move the story forward
Where does the scene fall on the story arc? It must fit where it belongs and pull its weight to advance the plot.

Develop Theme
The theme of a story is an insight about life or human nature that the writer presents to the reader. It’s the deeper meaning of a story. The story is a metaphor to express the theme – each scene elaborates the metaphor.

A Word about Exposition – facts, backstory, mini-flashback
use in small bites; don’t bog down the scene’s forward movement

A Word about Transitions – signposts for your reader
A transition may be needed at beginning of scene: Let the reader know where you are, how much time has passed

When do you decide all this about your scene?
Before, during or after – any time
Every revision – you’ll discover more
Your scene gets closer and closer to the ideal you want

Two friends are standing on a bridge
One wants to walk into town to eat supper
The other wants to hitchhike to Colorado