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
EXPLORING
DISCOVERING
REVEALING


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:
Honesty
Courage
Love for another – or many others
Self-sacrifice
Passion for a good cause
Loyalty
Intelligence
Friendliness
Sense of Humor
Etc.


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.

Speech
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.


EXERCISE:

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.

EXERCISE:

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.