Writing A Novel: Meet the Cast

Monday, July 18, 2016

Hey, all!  This is the next installment after Plotting It Out.  Today, we're going to talk about how to figure out your characters and how many you  need in a book.

So--how many characters do you need?  More than you may think!
Take a look at some of the well-known books: Harry Potter, The Maze Runner, Divergent, The Hunger Games, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Star Wars...all these books have tons of characters, and while not all of them are expanded upon extensively, they add something to the book that you wouldn't have without them: secondary characters.  The Hunger Games doesn't focus solely on Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark; instead, Suzanne Collins tells us about Cato, Clove, Rue, their parents, etc. In my own book "Welcome Home", I included characters like waiters/waitresses, Lucy and Spencer's coworkers, memories that included fellow soldiers, neighbors, and a pesky person who frequents their place of work; all of them offer something to the story in some small way.  We don't have to know the characters intimately for them to provide something special for the storyline as well.  What's this 'something special'?  The ability to have a book that feels real.  When we think about it, we don't know just one or two people in our lives, do we?  We know family. (Or at least know we have blood relatives, yes?)  We know that cashier at the restaurant we frequent, at least a little bit.  We know people we commute with on the bus, we know people we work with, we know people who frequent our places of work, we know our neighbors and those involved in the same regional activities we participate in!  That's a lot of people, if you think about it.  A ton of secondary characters.  If we don't include many -- or any -- secondary characters, the story feels flat, unrealistic, and a little dry.

Before you can start a "supporting cast", however, you need to know your characters.

Thus: begin a worksheet.  I know, I know...worksheets are synonymous with vulgar words sometimes.  However, they do help sometimes!  Think about, for your lead character(s):

--Favorites...food, color, animal, book genre, music genre, clothes (and a specific set that can be mentioned frequently, perhaps), occupation,....anything they enjoy.  
--Bad traits: biting their lips, chewing loudly, grinding their teeth, that one thing about their appearance, arrogance,...characters aren't, nor should they be, perfect.  This creates a sense of reality as well as the good traits.  You should also have a vice (such as arrogance, selfishness, etc) to overcome throughout character arcs as well.  It gives the reader a little extra something to root for.
--Good traits: Appearance, virtues such as honesty, faithfulness, etc., intelligence...
--Place of work
--Talents (even if they're weird, like being really good at picking up something with one's foot instead of hands)
--Milestones in their history (aka, major events from their past that will contribute, somehow, to the plot)
--What kind of family they have: members, how supportive or abusive, etc.
--Style tendencies
--Place(s) of work
--Place(s) of education
--Where they live (and research this location if necessary)
....You get the gist, right?  If you need help understanding what you need to understand about your characters, think about yourself.  If you were writing a story about your life, how would you present or describe yourself, truthfully, to your audience?  Apply similar questions to your characters.

Lead characters take a staggering amount of work to set up.  You have to know these guys inside out, upside down, and what they'd do or say for each and every situation you may throw at them.  Only then will the story flow smoothly and take off.  This suggests the ability to get into your characters' "headspace", or thinking about how to think/act like your characters.  Essentially, you're going to become an actor/actress...mentally.  Research things about your characters so you know and understand things such as mental conditions/ occupations/events/war/time eras that you aren't familiar with, so you're well-versed.  Think about why your characters chose to be placed in such events as what may go down in your story, too.  They have to have something in their past that causes their decision, whether it be compulsion issues or the exact opposite, or many other psychological contributions.  Go through your favorite books, movies, and especially music, and think about what your lead(s) would like, and then read/watch/listen.  I especially recommend music, because you can listen to it as you write, thus compelling you to stay in character.

Once you know your lead(s) impeccably, you can think about your secondary/other characters.  Does your lead have family?  Friends?  Coworkers?  Do they take an especial note of people with a specific attribute?  These can all be secondary characters, and they're the outer stitches that hold the inner works of the story together. You don't need to go through such rigorous thought processes for these guys, but that doesn't mean they are any less important or are unneeded to stay in character as well.  It may be that one of your secondary characters ends up being pivotal to the plot, just by telling your lead one small sentence.

In conclusion: knowing your characters well and having a medium-to-large net of smaller characters can save your book, especially if your story is an epic, fantasy, sci-fi, dystopian, or war novel.  All should offer something to the plot, no matter how small of a contribution, and they can create a more realistic situation (which is crucial especially in these specific genres, but as always, in any genre as well).

So you think you're ready to write now?  Okay!  Let's go on to...The first chapter.  Dreaded by all, we'll be covering this net time I post.  See you later, and may writer's block stay away from you all!

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