In writing a story you want to limit the number of characters you use. Instead of your main character having one friend to commiserate with over a drink and another friend drive him to the airport, they might as well be the same person.
Sometimes it can be obvious which jobs should go to which characters, but other times it can take a while to realise you can meld two into one. As well as making things more manageable, there are a number of useful consequences of doing this.
Fewer characters are easier to remember and makes the story easier to follow. Giving a character more than one thing to do gives them depth and complexity and generally makes them more interesting. And having familiar characters turn up in different parts of a story is something readers like.
However, simply conflating a bunch of characters into one person can come across as contrived.
If our hero gets into an argument at the gym with some aggressive meathead, and then later he gets taken hostage in a bank robbery and the lead robber turns out to be the guy from the gym, then that’s going to feel like a huge coincidence.
Having said that, even a blatantly forced series of events like the one I just described can work. Readers are so used to this sort of inter-weaving of storylines in a book that they would rather a clunky combining of character than totally separate encounters between unrelated people.
There’s nothing wrong with our hero getting into an argument with a guy in the gym, which puts him in a particular frame of mind so that when he runs foul of the (different) guy in the bank it’s his annoyed and mouthy reaction that results in him being taken as hostage.
But if the man behind the mask does turn out to be Jimbo from the gym, then even though there may be a moment of eye-rolling at the sheer implausibility, what you get immediately after that is a sense of curiosity and a wish to see the outcome of Round Two of this match up.
It’s a deep-seated desire in people to want to see relationships develop rather than a series of one-off interactions. But I’m giving you the most crude kind of approach here. You can get away with it, but it’s by no means ideal to do it this way.
Here are two techniques when using the same character in different parts of a story without leaving it up to fate: predetermination and proximity.
Consider a woman who gets coffee from a guy who has a coffee cart outside her offices. It’s good coffee, they make small talk. Later her aunt dies and she goes to the reading of the will, and who’s also there but coffee man. Turns out he knew the aunt from way back.
Wait, he just happened to place his coffee cart outside our heroine’s workplace? Why not? Stranger things have happened. And if the story goes into interesting places the contrivance of the set up will be quickly overlooked. But it is a contrivance.
If, however, you show that what appeared to be coincidence was a deliberate act on someone’s part, it will make for a more satisfying reading experience and it will add depth to the character.
In this case, maybe the coffee guy is really our heroine’s father. He put his cart outside her offices specifically to be able to see her without interfering in her life or imposing himself. After all she’s a big shot businesswoman and he’s Java Joe.
Allowing a character self-determination, even though we may not be aware of it initially, removes the contrivance from the situation.
Here’s another example. Our heroine meets her best-friend’s new boyfriend and they don’t get on. Yes, he’s good looking and witty, but he’s also arrogant and dismissive. Later at work she’s introduced to the new head of her department, guess who?
This could go any number of ways. Romance, dark comedy, espionage thriller, whatever. But if tall, dark and irritating isn’t merely a product of serendipity, if he has a reason to date her best-friend and to work at the same place as her, then that’s going to make a more satisfying read; you just have to figure out what that reason is.
He could be from a rival firm and dating the best-friend was a way to get info on our heroine because she has a big client he wants to poach.
Or the best-friend told him about the job at our heroine’s place that would be ideal for him; in fact it’s the best-friend who’s pushing him up the corporate ladder in true lady Macbeth style. She’s the one making the decisions.
Maybe having a best-friend and a boyfriend is too much clutter and it works better as one person. Our heroine tells her best-friend about an opportunity at work she wants to apply for and the best-friend gets the job instead. Rivalry and unhealthy competitiveness ensue.
As long as there is a conscious choice being made by someone you can use that to position characters anywhere you want. You can reveal that choice up front or as a big reveal at the end, all you have to do is make the character aware of the situation and wanting an explanation, and that will tell the reader that answers will be forthcoming (at some point).
The other approach is to consider how close characters are to each other. I mean physically, as in geographical location.
In the Java Joe example, if the dead aunt also worked at those offices (maybe she was a senior partner and our heroine was working her way up), then she would have encountered JJ just as our heroine did. We might not know what their relationship was or why he got left the house, the money and the villa in Spain, but the reader will be happy to wait to find out because we’ve started with a premise that gives the reader an initial connection.
Similarly, if the gym was next door to the bank, and Jimbo and his mates were actually digging a tunnel from the sauna into the bank vault, then when our hero pops in to cash a cheque after his workout and the bank robbers start screaming for everyone to hit the floor, it’s not a surprise the same guy is in both scenarios.
Even if you start off with locations miles apart, it’s worth considering if you can move people closer together. Often it isn’t that hard to do and it can make an unlikely appearance completely plausible.
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