Choosing Your Characters

Choosing Your Characters

When you decide to write a story, you’ll almost always already have the main characters in mind. After all, you can’t have even the idea of a story without characters to fill it out. So it may seem strange to talk about choosing your characters.

But, just like when you’re evaluating a scene, you have to be sure that each character is serving a purpose and driving the story forward. It’s one of the hardest evaluations to do when you’re editing, since removing a character means having to not only edit them out of each scene that they appeared in but also removing a person that you may have grown attached to.

Adding a new character to fill a necessary role can be just as hard since it’s someone you didn’t originally see in the story and you usually have to weave them into multiple scenes. In either case, the first step is evaluating your characters to see what you need.

To do that, you’ll want to start by listing out the characters in your story. Start with the main characters, then secondary, then any others. Once you have a complete list, go through it and compare the characters.

Are there any two that are filling the same role already? For example, does your heroine go to a coffee shop and talk to Sally the barista in two scenes, then pick up a bagel and talk to Paul in another? Could Sally take Paul’s place in the third scene?

Is there anyone who doesn’t seem involved? The other day, I read a story where the hero’s best friend was extremely important in the first chapter, but was completely replaced by the third and was never mentioned again. Without any real connection to the rest of the plot, the writer would have been better off leaving out the friend entirely.

On the other side, is there anyone whose motivations don’t make sense because they are filling two separate roles? The wizened old man who trains the young warlock shouldn’t be the same man who runs a merchant stall two books later without a compelling reason.

Don’t needlessly add new characters, but don’t shoehorn characters into roles that don’t fit them just to avoid writing new ones either.

It may be that there is another character that could fit that role better. Perhaps, in the example above, you replace Paul with Sally in that scene, but Paul was also the manager of the local hardware store that our brave heroine buys her nails from. Changing the roles can make Paul a more rounded character, even if the change means he shows up less in the book.

Once you’ve made these decisions, you’ll need to go back through and do your rewriting. It’s not easy work. Removing an entire character may mean that certain scenes have to go too. It will definitely mean that you have to be sure that you don’t reference that character again, even if you don’t use their name. For that reason, you really can’t just use the find feature (something that can fail anyway, if you misspelled their name at one point).

But when you’ve evaluated your characters and made sure that they work within your story, you’ll end up with a better story, and those characters who remain will be stronger and shine brighter for it.

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