Crafting Characters That Are Essential to Your Plot

There is a simple method for determining if you have enough characters in your novel or if you have too many. And that’s by scrutinizing each character in relation to your plot.

For example, in the movie Dragonfly, Joe Darrow, a doctor who lost his wife, has a next-door neighbor, Miriam, a woman who is a lawyer and who lost a child in death. She is a friend and ally who is also a voice of reason and encouragement to Joe. She presses him to go on a rafting trip, to sell his house, to get help when he’s losing it. She proverbially holds his hand and supports him when no one else will. No other character in the movie has that role or can take it on.

The story needs her character. Joe needs her. Because, without her, he would not follow the clues that lead him to where he must go to get the answers he needs about his wife’s death. Her presence not only reflects the kind of person that might normally be found in real life, it also is used to move the plot forward. If all Miriam did in the movie was wave hi and look sad every time she saw Joe, her appearance in the story would be filler and useless. Pay attention to that.

If three characters served basically the same role as Miriam, that would clutter the story—hence why experienced authors suggest rolling multiple characters with redundant or overlapping roles into one character.

Remember: the cat in the movie Babe tells the naïve pig that if he doesn’t have a purpose, well … he’ll end up like poor Rosanna the duck, who turned up as the featured entree on the Christmas dinner menu. Animals on the farm that don’t have a purpose meet a terrible fate. So too, if your characters don’t serve a purpose … out they go!

In Dragonfly, Joe must learn what the strange wiggly cross symbol is that all the young cancer patients in the oncology ward are seeing when they flatline. These children tell him Emily, Joe’s dead wife, is at the rainbow, and she is telling him to go there. Since the plot determines a number of the characters, there must be children in the cancer ward Joe interacts with. Then there are the doctors, nurses, and admins there that deal with Joe’s obsession and create tension and conflict—incidental characters. Then there is the group of Joe’s close friends who want to take him rafting, to help him heal from his grief, and the rafting trip element is key to learning what the wiggly symbol stands for.

The plot generates the characters. I can just imagine the screenwriters plotting out this story. They get this great idea to have this symbol as the key to leading Joe to the answers he seeks about his dead wife. Now they must figure out how Joe will learn what that symbol means. Aha! Have some close friends plan a river rafting trip, because that symbol is found on wilderness maps. Voila! Enter a handful of friends to be incidental but essential characters in the story.

Those are basically all the main characters in the movie, aside from the young pilot in Central America who flies Joe to the place where Emily died. Every character in the movie is essential to the plot. There aren’t any extra characters standing around, taking up space and time in the story for no reason. That makes for a tight story, tight plot, and meaningful action.

Let’s look at the cast forone of my favorite movies: While You Were Sleeping. It’s a warmhearted light romance, but oh so much more, and it has a delightful cast of characters. Sandra Bullock plays Lucy Moderatz, a lonely fare collector on the Chicago elevated railway. The highlight of her days is selling a token to a handsome commuter, Peter Callaghan, on whom she has a secret crush. Working on Christmas, Lucy witnesses Peter being mugged and pushed onto the tracks, and she rescues him from an oncoming train.

Peter falls into a coma and she accompanies him to the hospital, where she fantasizes aloud, “I was going to marry him.” A nurse overhears her and, misinterpreting the situation, tells the head physician, a policeman, and Callaghan’s family that Lucy is his fiancée. At first Lucy is too caught up in the madness of everyone’s panic to tell the truth, and after that she is too embarrassed to.

An orphan with few friends, she becomes so captivated with the quirky Callaghans and their unconditional love for her, that she cannot bring herself to hurt them by revealing that Peter doesn’t even know her. She spends a delayed Christmas with the family so “they can get to know each other.” Lucy then meets Peter’s younger brother, Jack (Bill Pullman), who has taken over his father’s business and is always working. Jack is very suspicious at first, saying Peter never mentioned Lucy or a marriage, which is not like him. Later on, after spending some time together to get acquainted, Jack starts to realize that he himself has feelings for Lucy.

Then complications arise. Peter wakes up, not remembering Lucy at all, but by this time the rest of the Callaghan family has become so enamored with Lucy that they all naturally assume that Peter must have amnesia. Forced by his family, Peter and Lucy spend time together, while Lucy doesn’t know how to tell them the truth, especially now that she has fallen in love with Jack.

Let’s stop here and consider the cast needed for this story. You can see right away how this would flesh out. You have Lucy, Peter, and Jack—the three involved in the bizarre love triangle. Peter, for most of the story, is in a coma, but he is a primary character, for once he awakens he is thrust into the mayhem, with everyone criticizing him for forgetting his precious fiancée.

Then we have the important secondary characters. There is Saul, the two brothers’ godfather, who comes to know and keep Lucy’s secret—a father figure or archetype to her (which works well because she has no father to guide her and needs one). There’s the brothers’ dad, Ox, who is hilarious and is clueless about what is going on in his home. There are other family members whom Lucy comes to love.

We also see an older man named Jerry, Lucy’s friend, who is plays a small role as a mentor or voice of reason. Listen to this exchange:

Lucy : I’m having an affair. I like Jack.

Jerry : Who’s Jack?

Lucy : Peter’s brother.

Jerry : So?

Lucy : So he thinks I’m engaged.

Jerry : To who?

Lucy : To Peter.

Jerry : Lucy, I really don’t have time for this.

Lucy : No, you have to tell me what to do.

Jerry : Tell the truth.

Lucy : If I tell Jack I lied to his family he will never speak to me again. And Ox and Midge and Mary and Saul.

Jerry : Saul? Who’s Saul?

Lucy : The next door neighbor. But you know what? Actually, he knows.

Jerry : Lucy, you are born into a family. You do not join them like you do the Marines.

Lucy : So what should I do?

Jerry : Pull the plug.

Lucy : You’re sick.

Jerry : I’m sick? You’re cheating on a vegetable.

And then there is a minor character, Joe Jr., who lives in Lucy’s apartment building and has a big crush on her. He doesn’t have a huge role, but he’s very funny and provides some complications. Jack mentions to Lucy how he witnessed Joe leaning into her, implying they had something going.

Lucy : [to Jack]  Okay, um. What do you mean by the leaning thing? You mean because [Joe] gave me flowers?

Jack : And then you leaned.

Lucy : And then I leaned.

Jack : Yeah.

Lucy : Okay, how did I lean when I leaned?

Jack : It was a lot different from hugging. Hugging’s very different. Hugging that involves arms and hands; and leaning is whole bodies moving in like this

[leans toward her suggestively]

Jack : . Leaning involves wanting … and accepting. Leaning…

Joe Jr. : Hey, Luce! Is this guy bothering you?

Lucy : [Laughs]  No, no.

Joe Jr. : Are you sure? Because it looks like he’s leaning.

Joe’s presence in the movie provides a cute way for Lucy and Jack to get close and eventually fall in love. Joe could have been left out of the cast, but then we wouldn’t have these fun little exchanges like this:

Joe Jr. : OK, Lucy, it’s either me or him!

Lucy : Him.

Joe Jr. : You don’t have to answer right away.

A few incidental characters are needed, such as Nurse Wanda in the hospital …

Lucy: Why did you say that?

Nurse Wanda: Say what?

Lucy: I’m not his fiancée.

Nurse Wanda: Why did you tell me that you were?

Lucy: I’m not engaged. I’ve never even spoken to the guy.

Nurse Wanda: What? Well, downstairs, you said, you said you were gonna marry him.

Lucy: Oh, geez, I was talking to myself.

Nurse Wanda: Well, next time you talk to yourself, tell yourself you’re single and end the conversation.

… and Ashley, Peter’s actual girlfriend, who objects to Peter marrying Lucy.

Ashley: Peter Callahan is engaged to me. I object to this wedding!

Priest: Get in line.

Ashley’s husband: And I object to your objection.

Mary Callaghan: Who’s that?

Peter: Ashley’s husband.

Midge Callaghan: You proposed to a married woman?

Peter: Yes. And I’m in a coma when my brother makes a play for my … sort of my fiancée.

When you watch a great movie or play, or read a great novel, pay attention to the cast of characters. Note the roles of each. Note if they change during the story. And note in particular—there aren’t any superfluous characters in the cast. Think economy of space on your stage. Crowd scenes may be necessary, but if twenty people in your crowd are yelling and vying for the audience’s attention, blabbering something incoherent, it will distract and annoy the viewers.

You are directing your masterpiece, so place the characters where they will best serve the plot and move the story forward with mystery, suspense, tension, conflict, and/or humor.

Motivation Is Everything

It’s crucial you understand that without something motivating your character, you won’t have a compelling character. A character without motivation, without a strong core need to do something, go somewhere, or help someone is a boring, flat, nothing character. Who wants to read about someone who sits around and watches TV all day or plays Bingo every night and then goes home and sleeps?

Yet, when extraordinary characters do ordinary things, they can infuse great meaning and passion into them. Characters that fascinate us can bake a cake and we’ll be riveted. Think of someone like Sherlock Holmes. In Elementary, a TV series about a modern-day Sherlock (I still have more than 100 episodes to watch!), Sherlock makes muffins. He studies fighting roosters. He tinkers with ordinary things. He does experiments with a turtle. But it’s all riveting because of who he is and what he brings to the task.

So don’t get stuck in thinking it’s only the plot action that will make your characters interesting. Quite the opposite. Plot is important, but it’s your characters that must be rich, complex, and engaging to make your story sing. And they must act from motivation. In fact, a terrific plot will probably be ruined if the characters are flat and boring.

“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”~ Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

This means work. This means taking time with all your characters and fleshing them out, giving them history and personality. But not in a random way. In a very specific and targeted way. Yes, to serve the interests of the plot. You’ll hear me say this a lot. If the character doesn’t serve an important purpose, out she goes!

NEW! Announcing my new online course: Your Cast of Characters

Learn all about creating the perfect cast for your novel in this new online video course. The course launches MAY 1, 2020, but you can enroll now and get $50 OFF the regular price by using coupon code EARLYBIRD. Sign up HERE at my online school. Remember: you CANNOT access any of the modules until May 1. I’ll be sending you an email at that time to let you know the doors are open!

Your characters are the heart of your story, so be ready to learn a lot of great tips. BONUS! Included in your course are interviews with best-selling authors, who discuss their process of how they come up with the best characters for their stories. You can’t find these videos anywhere else but in my new course.

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Here’s some of what you’ll learn in this extensive course:

  • What the basic types of characters are and what roles they play in a story
  • How your plot and premise inform the characters you develop
  • How to determine if a character is essential to your plot or just “filler”
  • What kind of supportive characters does your specific story need and how you can determine that
  • How to create characters that act as symbols
  • What archetypes are and how you can utilize them to create fantastic characters
  • How incidental characters can make or break your story
  • Why understanding character motivation is paramount

These video modules feature numerous excerpts from novels, movie clips, and deep instruction. In addition, you are given assignments to help you develop a great cast of characters which you can download and do over and over as needed. Be prepared to learn!

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