Wednesday, May 14

Preparing To Write A Story: Characters

Preparing To Write A Story: Characters

Today I continue writing about science fiction and fantasy author Michael Moorcock and his guidelines for writing a 45,000 to 60,000 word novel in three days.

Last time (see: How Michael Moorcock Wrote A Novel In Three Days) I wrote about how to begin setting things up, how to prepare for this literary marathon. Today I'm going to continue that discussion by talking about characters.

How many characters should you have?

I've heard it said that, "You should have as many characters as the story calls for." That's true but not terribly useful, especially for a beginning writer.  

While there is no clear-cut answer to this question, I would advise someone setting out to write their first book to let the adage "Less is more" be their guide. In other words, as long as each character has an arc that ties in with the main character's goal, that's fine. But if a character doesn't advance the story then one needs to think long and hard about whether that character should be in the story.[1] 

Also, in general, you likely don't want two or more characters filling the same role. For instance, if you're writing a 60,000 word novel and you have two vixen characters, ask yourself whether you really need them. What is each of them doing for the plot? Can you combine them?

Main Characters: Protagonist & Antagonist

You'll have a main character/hero/protagonist (of course!); this is the character the story is about. Their arc is the story arc. You'll also have an antagonist/villain, someone to oppose the hero's efforts to achieve his goal. That's the bare minimum.[2] 

Secondary Characters

Secondary characters are sometimes called minor characters. Whatever you call them, these are characters who have their own arcs, their own wants and fears, their own goals and dilemmas. In this way they're just like the protagonist and antagonist. The only difference is that the arcs of secondary characters are, well, secondary to those of the main characters. Being secondary doesn't mean being unimportant, it just means that their arc will, in some way shape or form, tie in with the protagonist's arc.[3]

Some secondary characters may have their own scenes, scenes in which they are the viewpoint characters. If you want to keep things simple--and the first time you write a book I'd say that's a great idea--have your protagonist be your only viewpoint character. But, like everything about writing, that's up to you and the demands of your story. Generally speaking, though, viewpoint characters will have more robust arcs than non-viewpoint characters.

K.M. Weiland advises that writers should add a relationship character to the mix since they will represent "the moral absolute within the story, against which the protagonist and antagonist will both be measured."

Best friend. In the movie Shrek the relationship character was Donkey. Clearly, Donkey was a force of change in Shrek's life, Donkey was Shrek's moral/ethical compass; Donkey never felt shy about telling Shrek how he should be doing things. 

Shrek provides us with just one example, but if you think about the stories you've read/watched/listened to I'm sure you will think of dozens of others since helper characters are in practically every story. 

Romantic interest. If the relationship character is the protagonist's love interest then it often happens that this character can see a potential in the protagonist that they themselves are blind to, perhaps that they (at times) actively resist. The love interest often tries to get the protagonist to change in ways that, though painful in the short term, would allow the protagonist to fulfill their potential. For example, in The Matrix Trinity helped Neo realize he was The One.

Minor antagonist. More colorfully referred to as an Evil Minion, Black Shirt, Punch Clock Villain, Renfield, or Sycophantic Servant this is the antagonist's special helper. Sometimes the antagonist is a Big Bad in which case the helper might be the protagonist's Nemesis.

Protagonist's mentor. There are all sorts of mentors. The wise old man/wizard/knight, the trickster, a teacher/guide/watcher, big brother, and so on. The mentor often gives the protagonist gifts as well as wise advice. If the hero--as often happens--initially rejects the Call to Adventure the mentor often convinces the hero to take up the challenge.

Chameleon. Often there is what I think of as a chameleon character, someone who seems as though they might be playing both sides, but one can't tell. Severus Snape, from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, was a chameleon character. He seemed to be working for the dark side but he turned out to be a red herring. The chameleon could be any of the characters--best friend, love interest, mentor or even the antagonist's minion.

Helper. What I just said about the chameleon being a role more than a character type/trope is also true for the protagonist's helper. This role could be filled with either the best friend, the love interest, the mentor or any of the many tropes which exist

So far we have:

Main character/Protagonist/Hero
Main character's conscience
- Best friend
- Love interest
- Mentor
Antagonist's minion

If you're trying to keep things as simple as possible, it's a good idea to try and keep the number of major characters--character's whose arcs are the most significant and who might be viewpoint characters--down to two or three.

We didn't talk very much about Michael Moorcock's method/formula for writing a novel in three days, but we do at least have a better idea of the kind of characters we'll be using. In the next episode in this series I'll talk more about the hero/protagonist and whether there are any qualities in particular the protagonist should have.

Good writing!


1. "Each [character] takes extra words, extra space, extra effort. Throw in too many, and you may even lose or confuse your reader." (Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer)

2. The antagonist doesn't have to be a person; it can be, for example, a force of nature such as a tornado. But that is less common in genre stories and those are the kind I have in mind. Also, I think it is harder to use a non-sentient force (such as a tornado) as an antagonist and I write these blog posts with new writers in mind. Finishing a novel is difficult enough; let's make everything else as easy as we can the first time round!

3. The arcs of secondary characters don't always tie in with the arc of the protagonist. Some stories will have (for example) four characters whose stories are given equal weight and who don't interact, whose stories don't overlap. These stories-within-a-story are, from what I've seen, generally unified either by a person, a place or an idea. (Examples: Pulp Fiction and Short Cuts.) I didn't mention this within the body of my article because I'm focusing on writing a very simple story.

Links to interesting articles on characters and character creation:

Photo credit: "bike" by Greg Westfall under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

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