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.

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