Monday, February 1, 2016

How to Create A Strong Cast of Characters

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series and the Ellie Sweet books. 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.


Today we're kicking off the first of our monthly challenges! I'm keeping my notebook close at all times, how about you? You can still get signed up to participate here, but I'll be closing the sign-up sheet soon.

One of the ideas I had recently came after listening to a podcast about Sir Isaac Newton, who I knew about in a vague kind of way but I couldn't have told you much. Turns out, he was a really quirky guy, and I thought, "Wouldn't it be fun to create a character inspired by him?"

Really quirky characters are fun to write, but they can often be too difficult for an audience to relate to if you cast them as a main character. (Yes, main characters should have quirks, and yes there are many successful stories that have very quirky main characters. So this is just an observation, not a rule.) But I love off-beat side characters like Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter or Noah from The Raven Boys.



Many writers love creating characters, so it's no surprise that I'm frequently asked this question:

How many characters should a book have?

This question doesn't have a simple answer because every story is different and some genres require more characters (epic fantasy springs to mind) than others.

The temptation to add superfluous characters is pretty common. For me, I rarely plan out characters before my first draft. While writing, I add them as I feel the need, and I always tend to add a few too many and have to cut back in edits. Here's how I make each character matter:

Strive for balance.


Sometimes I've read stories where it doesn't feel like there are too many characters to keep track of ... yet it still feels like there are too many characters. A lot of times that happens because the cast lacks diversity. I'm not talking just about race or heritage, but rather opinions, backstory, and purpose.

Opinions: The main character should be surrounded by people who have different opinions. Using Harry Potter as an example, Harry, Ron, and Hermione often disagree on how to go about things. This makes their conversations more robust and builds tension.

In backstory: I love how J. K. Rowling gave Harry, Ron, and Hermione such diverse backgrounds. Ron is from an old wizarding family, which means he can help explain to Harry (and the readers) how everything works. Hermione comes from a non-magical family and is discriminated against by some of the other students. These are both a good balance to Harry who has wizard parents but wasn't raised in the wizarding world.

Giving your characters different backstories will automatically help diversify their voices and perspectives.

In purpose: We'll talk about this more in the next point, but characters should fill unique roles and serve the story in different ways. This isn't about filling in all the right spots (the best friend, the love interest, the mentor, etc.) but rather making sure that each character is pulling their own weight.

While there are a variety of antagonists in the Harry Potter books, they antagonize him in different ways and from different social situations. We don't need two teachers or scads of Hogwarts students antagonizing Harry—Snape and Draco Malfoy do their jobs nicely.

One way to make sure you're not cluttering up the story with too many characters who have the same purpose is this:

Give every important character a goal.

I'm not talking about the barista character who's in one coffee house scene and is never mentioned by name. I'm talking about the characters who have a stake in what's going on. 

When my agent read my latest book, she said, "You have a lot of characters, and it's tough to keep track of them all. I want you to go back through your story and figure out what each character's primary goal is. Why are they doing what they're doing? What is motivating them?"

I did this, and then did one more round of edits before we started shopping the book.

Recently, I received my content edits from my editor. I beamed when I saw, "Even your more minor characters show a great deal of depth. It can be challenging to have a large cast of characters, but you handle them deftly and make sure that they stay true to their natures while still growing as the novel progresses."

I immediately emailed my agent to thank her for her advice.

Taking time to consider the each character's goal and primary motivator makes for a smart and purposeful cast of characters.

Combine where you can

In real life, we know lots and lots of people. We have teachers and hair dressers and pharmacists and neighbors and band friends and church friends and theater friends and so forth. 

In a book, that's just way too many characters. Try to combine where you can. The barista can also the best friend's boyfriend. The neighbor friend is also in band, the school play, and youth group. Maybe that's not very "real" but it means your reader will be able to keep up.

Who are some of your favorite side characters?



31 comments:

  1. Sometimes the side characters are my absolute favorites! I love Tyson from the Percy Jackson series, and Luna Lovegood is the BEST! On a side note, I'm really looking forward to the challenge. Thanks for the post, Mrs. Morrill!

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  2. Luna Lovegood is a fantastic side character. I liked her a lot once I got to know her a bit better. Fantastic post, I'm looking forward to the challenge. :)

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    1. She adds a wonderful touch of whimsy, I think!

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  3. Great post. This is definitely something to keep in mind. Now that I think about it, a couple of books I've read come to mind where this was a bit of a problem (couldn't put my finger on it when I read them).

    I know I have to watch this in my story, because it's loosely based on my experience. It's hard to cut certain characters because "that's So-and-so! I can't cut him!"

    Altogether, I have 1 POV character, 3 important characters and a few minor (but necessary) characters. I hope that that's not too many. I don't think it is, but I'm going to revisit it anyway.

    Thanks for the insight!

    Ashley @ The Writerly One

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    1. That's definitely a struggle when you're writing something rooted in your own life. That's one of the reasons why I finally had to push myself to write something I hadn't personally experienced because I was thinking too small. But I bet just the fact that you're aware of it will make a big difference in your edits.

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  4. I like Ginny in Harry Potter, since I can relate to her problems. I like the develop my characters really well before the story, and not plot it. When I know my characters, I figure out my plot. For example, if Harry Potter was a Draco Malfoy the plot would be quite different.

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    1. Yes, it would! I love when a plot flows organically from characters.

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  5. I often have more characters than necessary... I was just thinking yesterday how I wish I would have had more time on my last book because I would have combined several minor characters so that they were filling multiple roles.

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    1. When you're dealing with a story as big as yours, though, it can be nice to have those extra characters to use in surprising ways. Rowling certainly did that!

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  6. My favorite side character would have to be The Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland. (either the 2010 movie or the 1951 cartoon but mostly from the original book:) For some reason I absolutely love him. I also love Ginny in Harry Potter.

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  7. I tend to have too many characters (or characters that are just seem ... flat), so this post was really helpful! I agree, Luna Lovegood is so much fun :D. And then there's Legolas from LOTR and Sirius from Harry Potter, they're some of my favorites, too :).

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    1. My sister and I were extremely upset when we got to the part in the fifth book where Sirius ... well, I don't want to say in case there's someone here who hasn't got to that part in the books. But it was terribly sad ;(.
      I also really like Arya from the Eragon books (didn't really like her in the movie) and Eanrin from the Tales Of Goldstone Wood series. Eanrin is quite quirky (though I would be more apt to call him cocky) :).

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  8. I know the day is young, but nobody has mentioned Mr. Collins yet from Pride and Prejudice. I think he's a wonderfully quirky side character.

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    1. Hehe! My LIT class is about to read Pride and Prejudice!

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  9. I love the character Dustfinger from the Inkheart trilogy! He's a much more "wounded" character, but the author makes him very enjoyable to hear about.
    Also, Admiral Greer from the Jack Ryan books has great depth, though I haven't seen much of him yet (I'm currently reading the Cardinal of the Kremlin, book 4 chronologically). He's the stone-cold boss man of the CIA, but there are times when you see a much more soft side of him, and he genuinely cares about the people working under him. That's not something you often see in modern espionage fiction!

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  10. I like Kili in the LOTR movies. He's so cool! A very genuine character :)

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    1. How did I forget about Kili? I agree, he's a great character.

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  12. I love having a large cast, and with five main characters (yes they take turns playing main character not just multiple POVs) in my current WIP, I've been able to really expand my cast in ways I haven't done before, though I do run the risk of going overboard. I love brainstorming group dynamics, though I do often have to cut back on cast quite a bit. One of the first times I attempted to do such, I ended up having to delete five or six characters before I finished writing the scene. It strengthened the cast so much and those who remained took on stronger roles and character (I had to force the more important characters into more dangerous situations instead of a couple of red shirts no one cares for).

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  13. My favorite side character would have to be Gollum -- does he count? I also love aunt Zelda from the Septimus Heap books and how she (spoiler alert) took in Septimus and cared for him at first when he was still boy 412.

    I don't think I'll be able to participate in the challenge even though I filled out the form -- sorry! I'm too busy plotting my current story. Good luck to all who are however!

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    1. Gollum is awesome! Of course he counts:)

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  14. Hi Stephanie, I have a random question: Is it normal for an author to be published with multiple publishers, or do they tend to stick to one publisher? Great article! I have six main characters, so I stopped to consider their main goals. Thank you!

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    1. Just depends on the author. Some are published with multiple houses and some are only with one. Different careers take different paths :)

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  15. I love your tip on combining!
    In my epic fantasy WIP I've been afraid I have too many MCs (since I merged two worlds together), but recently I've started narrowing them down to a top 4-ish, and I've given each character a clear goal. If a character doesn't have one, I look for plot holes or places where my plot could use more depth and fit them in there!
    Fantastic article, I'll definitely keep this in mind when creating characters in the future.

    - Ellie
    http://ontheothersideofrealitynew.blogspot.com

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  16. I might have too many main characters. But only two survive to the end of the series. Though all of them have pretty unique roles and goals. Also my favorite side character is probably Brother Makin from Prince of Thorns.

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  17. Thanks so much for this post! This is really helpful, as I'm writing a book with multiple necessary characters. Giving them each a goal helped me give them depth. Thanks again!
    My favorite side characters would have to be Gimli from the Lord of the Rings and Ron from Harry Potter

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