Wednesday, June 3, 2015

How to Populate Your Story With the Right Cast

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Birch House Press). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

(This post is part of the Writing A Novel From Beginning to End series. You can find other posts from this series on the Looking For Something Specific? tab.)

Ever read a book where the main character had lots of spunk and voice, but it felt like he or she was operating in a world of cardboard cut outs? I have, and I know my first drafts almost always read that way.



Your main character is certainly the most important one to figure out, and in the early stages of planning, she's usually the only character I've taken the time to unravel. But at some point—ideally the beginning, but for me it sadly tends to be during the second draft—it's wise to tune into the rest of the cast and make sure they're earning their spot. A good place to start is to ask:

What value does the character add?

Often characters arise organically as I'm working on a new story. This is great, except that it often leaves me with characters who matter for a chapter or two, but then just hang around on the fringe for the rest of the book.

I try to only have as many characters as I need for a story. The reader can only remember so much, plus it's annoying to waste time with characters who don't impact the story. This doesn't mean I automatically cut all my organic characters, but rather that at some point in the process, I clarify their purpose.

How many characters does a story need? It completely depends on the story. George R.R. Martin books require quite a few, which is typical in the epic fantasy genre. If your story scope is narrow, however, you won't need as many. 

So how do you figure out if a character is necessary to a story? You imagine what the story would be if you were to cut them.

In my first draft of Me, Just Different, I gave my super popular main character, Skylar, seven friends. To me this felt very real. The popular girls at my school always had big groups of friends. 

But early feedback indicated that there were too many friends to keep track of. Upon examination, I realized I could cut two of them because they rarely impacted scenes or did anything other than hang out on the sidelines of conversations.

Then an agent read a later draft, and her response was still, "I can't keep track of all these friends. We need to cut one or two." So I cut more.

The result is that Skylar has three close friends, and not a single person has ever written to me and said, "Hey, it's unrealistic for the most popular girl at school to have only three good friends!"

But how do we make all these characters sound different from each other? It's easy for characters to all talk the same and react the same way. The big gun for fighting this problem is to create unique backstories for everyone. 

Let's look at two different stories from completely different genres to see how this plays out:

The Harry Potter series:
Harry: Born to a wizard and witch but raised in a non-magical world.
Ron: Raised in an old but poor magic family. Doesn't know a thing about the non-magical world.
Hermione: Born to two non-magical parents and, until receiving her invite to attend Hogwarts, knew nothing of  the magic world.

Gilmore Girls:
Lorelai (the mother): Raised in an old money family by parents whom she felt she could never please. 
Rory (the daughter): Raised by a single mother. Lots of freedom but also lots of responsibility.

It's probably easy to see at a glance that these characters are going to move about the story in a different way. Hermione will care a lot more about doing well and looking like she belongs than Ron, who already knows he belongs. Rory will feel very different about an expensive present from her grandparents than her mother will.

Another tip that has really helped me develop my cast of characters is the advice that we are all the main characters in our own story, and our characters should feel the same way.

In the Ellie Sweet books, Ellie is my main character, but Lucy doesn't think of herself as The Former Best Friend, Palmer doesn't think of himself as The Love Interest, and Chase doesn't think of himself as A Complication.

Yet in so many of my first drafts, you would think the other characters of the book are just sitting around waiting for my main character to walk onto the stage so they can be defined. How do we fix that?

We give them their own things to do or worry about. Palmer is trying to settle into the right group at his new school. Lucy has parents who are divorcing. Chase has a family that struggles to make ends meet and two brothers who are in jail.

When you've solidified in your mind what other characters are working toward and thinking about, this keeps conversations from revolving around your main character and his or her issues.

Even still, I like to ask myself:

How does this character's issue intersect with the main character?

Using the ripple effects of another character's choice or actions to impact your main character is one way to make them feel vital to the story. Like in the Ellie Sweet books, Lucy's parents divorce, which leads to Lucy moving, which changes the social dynamic at school for Ellie.

If you're watching season of Turn, there's been loads of great examples of this recently. The main character, Abraham, is in being held in jail as a spy. The only character who can clear his name is Major Hewlett, but he's been captured by the rebel army. Two other characters—Anna and Mary—devise a plan to get Hewlett back so that Abraham can be freed. But them choosing to get involved actually interrupts Hewlett being freed by someone else, and therefore the audience's hope of Abraham being freed is now delayed.

Sometimes these ripple effects happen effortlessly—doesn't that feel amazing when it all comes together?—but more often they take work to create, so don't grow discouraged!

Who are some of your favorite non-main characters from novels? What is it about them that stands out to you?





31 comments:

  1. I actually have the inverse problem... I adore my supporting cast, but I often become bored and frustrated with my main character. It's like spending too much time with them slowly lessens their interest...

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    1. Interesting, Allison. If I'm remembering my history right, I recall Shakespeare having a similar problem, and that's the theory on why Mercutio gets killed off in Romeo and Juliet, because he was upstaging Romeo.

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  2. Oh, I have the tendency of really "falling in love" with minor characters. Annabeth from the Percy Jackson series is one of my favorites. I don't know what it is about her, but she's just awesome. In my own books, I really love my minor character Idina. She had such a personality from her first appearance that she was one of the easiest characters for me to write.

    Minor characters in television/movies are also a big love of mine. JARVIS from the Avengers movies, Lt. Barclay from Star Trek: The Next Generation...my list could go on and on. ;)

    Thanks so much for the post, Mrs. Morrill!

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    1. That's funny, Linea! All good choices :)

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  3. I have to agree with Linea on non-main characters, Annabeth is awesome. She seems like a Hermione type at first glance, but she's not really Hermione at all. She's one of the strongest heroines out there--but she still seems completely realistic. I think people like her because she's not your average heroine--she stands up for herself and others when many characters are ready to back down, plus she's not pathetically romantic. And she's sarcastic, too, which I love. My MC was originally based on her, though April's developed a completely different personality since then.

    And in movies, Yoda rocks.

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    1. I'm ALWAYS drawn to sarcastic characters.

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    2. Difficult to argue with, Yoda's awesomeness is. And I'm the same way about sarcastic characters, to the point that I have a hard time writing one who's NOT sarcastic. They're just so fun to work with, plus the dialogue is always fun to write.

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  4. I so have this problem. I recently created a character who serves the sole purpose for telling him that the Empire is planning to invade the Vostol Forest, and also so that when my MC saved him, I prove that he's not as rough, tough and ready to kill as you'd think. I love giving him a much more important role, and watching him fit in the puzzle! It's so cool.

    Does Gollum count? If so, I love him. Yes my preciousss...

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    1. Of course Gollum counts! He's an excellent side character.

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  5. Really good food for thought! I think, as writers, we also get carried away with all the characters we have the power to create. It's important for us, as you so nicely stated, to imagine our stories without specific characters to reevaluate their purposes.

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  6. In my own stories I love some of my secondary and minor characters best :)

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  7. I've been thinking about this a lot lately! Some of my favorite side characters in novels are Hayden from Unwind by Neal Shusterman (he's sarcastic and witty and more important than you think at first), Butler from Artemis Fowl (I don't know, he's just so interesting!), and Finnick from The Hunger Games (he's such a complex character.)

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  8. Great post! I'm really enjoying this series.

    I like best-friend characters, especially in L.M Montgomery novels. They complement the main girls nicely. (Like sweet Diana Barry with a somewhat quieter personality than Anne Shirley's, and Ilse Burnley's flaming rage and radiant beauty contrasting dark and dignified Emily Starr.)

    My casts tend to be too big as well, especially since I'm writing YA Contemporary now instead of fantasy. (But it's got a sort of time machine, so YA speculative? I wonder if YA Christian Contemporary Sci-fi Romance is a thing...) No doubt I need to cut someone from my not-yet-started project, probably the girl who is uncoincidentally- similar to someone I dislike. It's depressing that I've become bitter enough to contemplate it.

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  9. Thank you!
    As of now, I'm developing my characters and plot. The number of main characters is now up to maybe five, and that may be it. More characters to fall in love with I suppose.

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  10. Not sure how many of you know this, but Thor has a daughter. Thrud is a character that I have used. I like her because she doesn't give up.

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  11. This was such a great post (and in perfect timing) since I just finished the first draft of my novel and I'm getting ready for editing.

    I think I need to improve the lives and personalities of my supporting characters, and this helped me a lot.

    Well, non-main characters from novels? I really like Toby Ellicott (I think that's how it's spelled) from Robyn Schneider's The Beginning of Everything, Genya from Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, Rowan from Sarah J. Maas's Heir of Fire, Roar from Under The Never Sky by Veronica Rossi, and Jamie (if I'm not mistaken) from Michelle Hodkin's The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer.

    I find all of them really, really interesting and even if they aren't main characters, they are a big part of the story. I'd love to have spin-offs on their points of view/them as the main characters. I think it'd be so cool, haha.

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  12. Its hard to pick but here are some of my favorites:
    Rue and Prim form the Hunger Games, Thalia, Calypso, and Annabeth from Percy Jackson, Hermione,Luna, Neville, Dobby, and Ginny from Harry Potter, Ky, Indie, Xander, and Em from Matched, Rose, River, Rory, and Donna from Doctor Who, Jemma, Fitz, and Skye from Agents of SHEILD, Artimis, Robin, Kid Flash, and M'gann from Young Justice , Peggy Carter , Gwen Stacy, and Coulson from Marvel, Ellie, Rufus, and Ferb from Disney, Cisco, and Kaitlin from the Flash, Sam, and Balin from LOTR, Ahsoka, and Rex from Star Wars Clone Wars, Reepacheap from Narnia, and SO many more!!!! I love side characters!

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  13. This post was really useful because my most recent WIP has eight characters that I think are all really important to the story since they all are on one spaceship and all have different roles. Each one has their own backstory, so I'm glad to see that I'm doing alright on that end, but I have wondered if I have too many characters. It gets especially hard when something happens and all eight characters are talking. I feel like they all need to balance out their talking so that one of them is "invisible" in the conversation. Do you have any tips for group dialogue?

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    1. I have read a lot of good posts on dialogue, but a good tip is find out who dominates conversation. With eight characters I doubt all of them are bouncing off the walls, or all socially inclined. I have five main characters and only one extravert (socially inclined), so he dominates the general conversation when all the other characters are involved. The introverts (not socially inclined characters) are likely to think more than they say and this can be conveyed through nonverbal language.

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    2. I understand your pain...a past NaNoWriMo novel included eight narrators. And these days I think it was too many, but many authors balance that many narrators just fine. Maybe instead of the invisible character, try having someone who's doing something else during the conversation, and periodically mention them so they don't disappear. I used to have Toby juggling fireballs while the others talked. Rick Riordan does multi-person dialogue well in his Heroes of Olympus series, and often he'll have someone doing something in the background, which keeps them in the scene without dealing with several people all running their mouths at one time. And I second Anonymous's advice, some characters are just louder than others. I also have five major characters (though just one narrator) and two barely talk, my MC talks when she has to but is introverted, one is an extrovert, and one enjoys breaking in periodically with snarky comments.

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    3. Those are great tips, Anon and Ellie! Thanks! Anon, my characters all have different MBTIs, so I think it will really help to figure out who dominates each conversation and how the introversion and extroversion of the characters affects the way they talk. And it's also a great idea to have them doing something else, Ellie. That way I won't have to worry about a character seemingly being "forgotten". Once again, thanks for the tips!

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  14. I love my minor characters!!!!! I never have trouble with minor characters taking over because I love multiple POV (making sure all of them are relevant), but I still love them. Recently, I fell head-over-heels for all my mentor roles, giving them solid backstories and falling for one almost as much as my favorite main character. This allowed me to add so much depth to these previously shallow characters who play such a major background role in the story.

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  15. Gaffer Gamgee and Farmer Maggot for talking back to the Nazgul. :)

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    1. Yes, I most absolutely completely wholeheartedly ultimately agree!! The Gaffer is SUCH a dear... and he knows how to bring up his son. ;)

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  16. I love minor characters! They have the potential to be so fascinating, and often, I actually like the minors better than the mains. Some of my favorites are Zane from The Safe Lands series, Chekov from Star Trek, FitzSimmons, Bobbi, and Hunter from Agents of Shield, Darcy from the Thor movies, Nico from the Percy Jackson series, Luna and Neville from Harry Potter, Fishlegs and Camicazi from How to Train Your Dragon...
    And I'm just gonna stop now. Minor characters are epic.


    Alexa
    thessalexa.blogspot.com
    verbositybookreviews.wordpress.com

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  17. My favorite minor characters?
    Definitely Marcello, Luca, and Lord Greco from the River of Time series (funny how I can never think of him as Rodolfo, only as Lord Greco...)
    Eagen, Kurtz, Gren (oh, yes, Gren!), Noam, Harnu, Riga, etc. etc. etc. from the Blood of Kings Trilogy.
    Sam, Merry, Pippin, and Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings.
    Fili and Kili from the Hobbit, and probably Balin there too.

    Um... yeah. I'll stop now, or just this comment will fill your in-box...
    Love the post! I usually have a problem with minor characters...

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  18. My favorite minor characters?
    Definitely Marcello, Luca, and Lord Greco from the River of Time series (funny how I can never think of him as Rodolfo, only as Lord Greco...)
    Eagen, Kurtz, Gren (oh, yes, Gren!), Noam, Harnu, Riga, etc. etc. etc. from the Blood of Kings Trilogy.
    Sam, Merry, Pippin, and Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings.
    Fili and Kili from the Hobbit, and probably Balin there too.

    Um... yeah. I'll stop now, or just this comment will fill your in-box...
    Love the post! I usually have a problem with minor characters...

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  19. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  20. My favorite minor characters?
    Definitely Marcello, Luca, and Lord Greco from the River of Time series (funny how I can never think of him as Rodolfo, only as Lord Greco...)
    Eagen, Kurtz, Gren (oh, yes, Gren!), Noam, Harnu, Riga, etc. etc. etc. from the Blood of Kings Trilogy.
    Sam, Merry, Pippin, and Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings.
    Fili and Kili from the Hobbit, and probably Balin there too.

    Um... yeah. I'll stop now, or just this comment will fill your in-box...
    Love the post! I usually have a problem with minor characters...

    ReplyDelete
  21. Everyone's advice has been so helpful! My favourite minor characters include Rodolfo and Father Tomas from River of Time, Nico and the Stoll brothers from Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Zane from the Safe Lands, Merry from Lord of the Rings and Vidar from the Remnants trilogy

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