[Author note: If you’re a pantser, sit down and make yourself comfortable. I'm hoping to show that some pre-writing activity can save you work later without killing creativity. Honest!]
Character, characters everywhere! But do they have a job to do? That’s a good question to ask. Just like you’re created with a purpose in mind, your characters should be, too.
It’s so easy to overpopulate a story. That’s how I’ve collected so many dynamite deleted scenes. But creating a cache of deleted scenes is not my objective. I need to look at my characters as part of an organic whole, not as detached individuals. Each character should help define the others.
According to John Truby in The Anatomy of Story, we learn the most about our protagonist when we can compare her to the other characters on four different levels: by story function, archetype, theme, and opposition.
Today, I’m going to talk about the story function of your characters, because this helped me the most with crowd control—and revolutionized the way I think about developing characters.
This is my gift to you after being so snarky about Maass’s chapter, “Standout Characters.” Deepest apologies again, Mr. Maass, sir.
Every novel starts with a premise. The premise is what your story is about in one sentence. For instance, the premise of The Hunger Games (HG) is: In post-apocalyptic America, a teen-aged huntress takes her sister’s place in a last-man-standing battle against representatives of the eleven other districts of Panem.
Once you know your premise, you create characters. Start with your protagonist or hero. She’s the one with the central problem. (Katniss must take care of her sister.) She’s the one who drives the action in an attempt to solve her problem. (Katniss volunteers to take Prim’s place in the hunger games.) The protagonist drives the action, but she isn't without her weaknesses and needs. (Katniss is a loner, but she must partner with other contestants to survive, knowing she will later need to kill them in order to solve her problem.)
This is where things get interesting. All other characters in your novel will represent an opposition, an alliance with the protagonist, or a combination of the two. Every character has a job to do to tell your story according to the premise.
Antagonist: The antagonist should want the same thing as the protagonist, which will bring them in direct conflict. This doesn't mean they hate each other, necessarily. Think of them as opposition, a less brick-wall kind of word. (Katniss has one big antagonist, the government, plus twenty-three contestants that want to live to take care of their families, so they must kill her.)
Ally: An ally helps the protagonist solve her problem. They listen to the protagonist, giving the reader a chance to hear in the protagonist's own words what she values and wants. Again, their goals are usually the same, but sometimes the ally has her own goal. (In HG, Katniss has an ally in Gale, her hunting partner in District 12. Also, Cinna, her stylist uses his cunning and skill to make Katniss a favorite in the games.)
Fake-Ally Opponent: This is where things get really interesting. This character seems to be on the protagonist’s side, but is really an opponent. This is how twists and turns are added to a story, as well as tension. (Effie Trinket plays this role for Katniss. She’s very proper and gathers a team to help Katniss, but she represents the government, the source of all Katniss’s problems. As the government’s representative, she facilitates the death of at least one, if not both of her charges, Katniss and Peeta.)
Fake-Opponent Ally: These are fun characters to write but not as common in storytelling as the Fake-Ally Opponent, but HG is full of them. This opponent appears to be fighting the protagonist but is actually a friend. (Peeta, of course, is the first of Katniss’s opponents to come to mind, but don’t forget about Rue. The most powerful Fake-Opponent Ally is Haymitch, Katniss’s supposed mentor. He is drunk and useless most of the time, but he sees something in Katniss that makes him believe she is finally the one who can survive. He recruits sponsors and sends supplies at just the right moment.)
Subplot Character: Their role is to give another opportunity to define the protagonist through comparison (they want the same thing or have the same problem but go after the solution differently) and to advance the plot. In HG, Katniss’s mother is a subplot character. She wants the same thing, to take care of Katniss and Prim, but her grief has paralyzed her. In this way we see the heroic side of Katniss. The mother moves the plot along by her passivity. Katniss is all Prim has in her broken world.
HG might not have been the best example because there are lots of characters, but they fit very nicely into their roles. Let’s look at a “smaller” story world to see how this works. Feel free to disagree with me.
In The Language of Flowers, the premise is that a young woman uses flowers to say the things she cannot say on her quest for love.
Victoria is our protagonist. Her central problem is that she wants to love and be loved but can’t do either. As a product of the foster system, Victoria has never properly bonded with a caregiver, so she probably suffers from reactive attachment disorder (RAD). She uses the language of flowers she learns from her foster mother to try to make connections.
Her antagonist is RAD, I think. She sabotages herself in all of her attempts to make meaningful connections.
The author brilliantly gives Victoria two strong allies, Renata the florist and Grant the flower grower. Renata gives Victoria a job to rescue her from homelessness and allows her room to be ellusive, and Grant is the most patient man in the world, and he loves her, literally and figuratively challenging her flower language.
Victoria’s false-opponent ally, and this is up for debate, is her caseworker. Name? She comes off as making hurtful decisions for Victoria, but she introduces her to the only mother she will ever know because she understands what Victoria needs.
The false-ally opponent is her foster mother, Elizabeth. She needs the same thing as Victoria, love, and she gives it freely until what she loves more than Victoria is destroyed. She ends up wounding Victoria worst of all.
The subplot character is Victoria’s assistant whom she brings in from her old group home. Again, name? She’s there to compare how two foster system kids react to emancipation.
So, there you have it, a purpose-driven approach to populating your novels. Personally, this information has helped me develop a wider variety of characters with greater capacity for conflict and helped me to focus the story on the premise by not adding characters who aren't needed. (This is how adorable yet menacing Fred got booted from Goodness & Mercy.)
I would love to hear what you think of Truby’s story structure approach to populating your stories. Have you tried this approach? What benefits or hindrances did you experience? How do you keep from over-populating your stories? Have you ever asked yourself while reading a novel, "What is this character doing here?"