Monday, 19 May 2014

Uncontriving Characters



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. 

If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.

39 comments:

Chemist Ken said...

The trick, as you said, is to make the coincidence sound plausible from the beginning, especially if the underlying reason won't be revealed until later. As a newbie writer, I've noticed that whenever I've tried something similar, my crit partners immediately assume my story has problems, whereas if they read the same thing by an established author, they'd figured it was fine and that the author will clue them in later.

Audrey Sauble said...

Great post! I love creating minor characters, so my stories are fairly cluttered, but I want to work on building those connections even if that means cutting the cast.

Karen Walker said...

I struggled with this a bit in my novel. I was very conscious of not wanting too many characters. This is very helpful. Thanks.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Like the idea of weaving in back story to the character, especially the first scenario with Java Joe. Then it doesn't feel contrived.

Author R. Mac Wheeler said...

You are always good for a passel of ideas :)

mooderino said...

@Ken - simply having a character acknowledge the unlikely event can be enough to alleviate the reader's concerns, for a while anyway.

@Audrey - cutting the cast down and combining characters often makes the story richer with more depth.

@Karen - you're very welcome.

@Alex - it also helps things make sense (unlike real life).

@Mac - Passeling is one of my best features.

Al Diaz said...

I learned this lesson the hard way. I had many characters in my first story. Too many.
I must say all of the examples you use always leave me wanting to hear more. Also, after reading your articles, I always miss my days of writing stories.

Lexa Cain said...

I much prefer stories with few characters and no coincidences. But it seems world-wide epics are more likely to attract big publishers, and that means bunches of characters. I have about 16 in my newest WIP. It's not fun. :P

Michael Di Gesu said...

Hey, Mood,

Excellent examples here. I really like the way you wove these scenes to make them much more plausible and interesting... Well done!

I tweeted!

Elise Fallson said...

I like coincidences in a story if they set up a plot twist or become a key element down the road giving me the "Aha!" moment that I love in a story.

Jimbo, gotta love that name.

Rachelle Ayala said...

I always like your concrete examples. It helps me understand how to solve a story problem.

Denise Covey said...

None of us want our characters to appear contrived, so thanks for the excellent advice here Moody.

Murees Dupé said...

This is very helpful information, thank you. I have been told I use too many characters and introduce them in too small time span. I have definitely learned something.

Diane Carlisle said...

Less characters = happy reader. It's too much trying to keep up with who is who and who did what when you go beyond a few.

mooderino said...

@Al - it's much easier making a snippet sound interesting than it is to produce a whole book (I've found).

@Lexa - I blame that Stephen King. Even his empty rooms have half a dozen dead people in them.

@Michael - thank you.

@Elise - It can certainly work if used cleverly. Not so much if it's never mentioned again.

@Rachelle - glad to be of help.

@Denise - you're very welcome.

@Murees - it's tempting to introduce them all as quickly as possible to get it out of the way, but that tends to make it even harder to remember who's who.

@diane - some books manage it, but the reader has to be willing to concentrate. Something few are keen on.

Gina Gao said...

This was very helpful! I like having few minor characters.

www.modernworld4.blogspot.com

debi o'neille said...

Wow, you not only give excellent advice, but you back it up with great, easy-to-understand examples. Great post.
Deb@ http://debioneille.blogspot.com

mooderino said...

@gina - few but interesting helps round out the story,

@debi - cheers.

Medeia Sharif said...

I'm having this issue with a manuscript. Some CP's suggested combining two characters or cutting some dialogue and the back and forth in some scenes between them.

cleemckenzie said...

Walk ons are okay, but they should serve a purpose. I'd rather have a few "interesting" minor characters than a multitude of flat one. Besides, if you introduce minor characters in one book and decide to write a sequel, you can reach back to that previous story and flesh out those people. I like it when authors do that.

mooderino said...

@Medeia - it often takes a while to get it right, can be a pain to smooth it all out.

@lee - even walk ons can use a little

Rachna Chhabria said...

I hate it when some stories come across as so contrived (hope no one says that about my stories). Many stories I have read rely heavily on serendipity, characters bump into each other so conveniently that I just have to roll my eyes.
I love creating many minor characters, so you can accuse me of over populating my stories.

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