Monday, April 30, 2018

How To Make Sure Every Character Counts In Your Story

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the 1920s mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.

I have a tendency to create large casts of characters. I never intend to do this, it just seems to be the way my stories come out.

Within These Lines is actually the first book I've written where I didn't have to cut a character or scale back someone's role dramatically. I hope this means I'm getting better at identifying which characters need to exist and which do not.

If you want to write a story that reads smoothly, it is critical that every character serves a purpose. In well-crafted stories, there is no space for characters who are cuttable.

How do you make sure you accomplish that?

My first suggestion for creating purposeful characters, is to give consideration ahead of timeor in edits, if that ship has already sailedabout what motivates each character during the story.

Here are the primary motivators I listed for several key characters in Within These Lines:

(This is part of my story workbook that I create for each book I write. If you want to get a free tutorial about how to make one for yourself, all you have to do is subscribe to Go Teen Writers Notes.)

When you know the different primary motivators for each character, not only does it naturally cause each character to play a different role in the story, but a source for conflict is built in.

There is also a way to make sure you are accomplishing purposeful character choices within each scene. Think about each scene as though you are planning a heist. (Not that I have ever planned a heist, but I've watched Ocean's 11 several times, and I love Ally Carter's Heist Society series. So I'm totally qualified to rock this analogy.)

When planning a heist, everybody has a specific role to play. One is the decoy, another takes care of the technology, another does the actual sneaking in and stealing, and so forth. Unless there is a very specific need to double up, you never see two people filling the same role in a heist. We don't need two characters dropping in from the ceiling to snatch whatever it was that Tom Cruise was stealing in Mission Impossible.

The same idea applies to individual scenes in your book. You don't need five characters to disagree with your main character, you just need one. Maybe two or three can be justified in certain circumstances, but only if they bring different reasons for disagreeing to the table. We don't need different characters saying the same thing.

An easy ways to figure out if you are already doing this is to ask, How would this scene be impacted if I cut this character? If you could  cut the character and keep the scene mostly intact, then that character is not serving a strong enough purpose to be there. You should either look for ways to give them purpose or remove them completely.

Just for fun, pick five of the most important characters of your story. In a phrase or sentence, tell me what their primary motivation is in the story.


  1. Ooh. This is something I struggle with a lot because I come up with new character ideas and want to use them, plus I also use characters in some stories to show the different parts of society. :P (And in fairy tales, sometimes you have a specific number of characters you have to fill out . . .) Anyway. In my current story:

    IVY: to keep her sisters from being trapped by King du Karel.

    POPPY: to escape the tower by any means possible.

    ASTER: to find the best balance between escape and safety.

    JACOB: to help out the man who took him in after his father died.

    JASON: to find the truth and stop the Unman plans before they can begin.

    1. One could also say that Aster's primary goal is to care for her sisters, but that's more of a broad goal than a book-specific goal. I don't know.

    2. And since Ivy has a sister-related goal, it seems like Aster's being different is a good idea. Sounds like you have a lot going on in this story!

  2. I have a new story that I'm working on, and it's loosely based around Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. My 5 most important characters are:

    Alice, who wants to find the happiest ending for her.
    The Queen of Hearts, who wants to destroy Alice from page one.
    The Cheshire Cat, who is in league with the Queen of Hearts.
    The White Rabbit, who wants to find freedom from a quickly-moving Time.
    The Mad Hatter, who wants a normal tea and a normal life.

    1. The Mad Hatter wanting a normal life is perhaps the best part of my characters. It really drives the plot forward. I'll explain some other day.

    2. His motivator of a "normal tea" cracks me up. In a good way :)

  3. This is SO helpful, honestly. There's one character in particular in this current story who I'm trying to figure out if I should cut....I might have to, but you never know.

    My five most important characters:
    -Esma, who wants to save her kingdom from war.
    -A spoiler character who seeks approval and love.
    -Derek, who wants to lead an army.
    -Kariana, who wants to be normal someday.
    -and Anna, who wants to finally find out who she is.

    1. Excellent, Florid! I'm very intrigued by your spoiler character :)

  4. When I was younger I heard a piece of writing advice that changed the way I wrote characters: Your side characters don't know they're side characters, they have their own struggles.

    My five most important characters:

    -Piper Anson, a happy-go-lucky teen who finds herself desperate for money for her mom's hospital bill after a horrible accident.

    -Alex Anson, a shy fifteen-yea-old who struggles with the feeling of hopelessness after his mom is unconscious in a hospital.

    -Josh, a runaway rebel without a cause, who is trying to escape the past.

    -Andres, a hard worker, trying to help others and keep his family together.

    -Lauren, Piper's best friend, who loves theater drama, and tries her best to support Piper and Alex in their time of need.

    Great post!!

    1. Gray, I also heard that advice and also found it transforming. The way I heard it phrased was that every character views his or herself as the main character. That makes such a difference!

      So two of those motivators seem a little vague to me. Alex is struggling with hopelessness, but what is he motivated by during the story? Is it "holding onto hope" or something else?

      And then Lauren's motivation seems like potentially she knows she's a side character. Of course there's nothing wrong with her being a supportive friend, but it seems like she could use something else motivating her too.

    2. Alex's struggle throughout the story (it's a three POV book) is that he's struggling with wanting to go do something in order to help his mom who is unconscious, like his older sister Piper, but he's scared of her waking up and being alone, so he's in a "should I stay or should I go?" situation, which Andres is trying to mentor and encourage him in.

      Lauren is a newer character, she hasn't had a lot of page time, so I'm still trying to make her more realistic, I'm not sure about her full motivation yet. ^_^

  5. For some reason it has never occurred to me to think of my characters' primary motivations. That seems like it'll be a very helpful concept. Great post!
    As far as I can tell, off the top of my head, five of my characters' motivations are as follows:
    1. Corsiban: Motivated by money and solitude. He would like to complete the quest he is being paid to do and get back to his life as a hermit.
    2. Rael: Motivated by the need to atone for perceived wrongs and make things right, both with regard to his tainted past and with things that aren't his fault in the present.
    3. Brivnir: Motivated by the conviction to act justly in everything and do his duty to his people and friends.
    4. Everen: Motivated half by friendship and half by revenge. She undertakes the quest partially because she wants to help Rael and partially because she wishes to make a traitor pay.
    5. The Silver Queen: Motivated by the desire to be ever greater than she is, though the definition of what is really "great" changes.

    1. I especially love Everen's motivation. Sounds like you've built in opportunities for great internal conflict!

  6. Great post. Roles that I tend to find especially interesting is when a character's role is pretty much just to die to provide motivation. This can be tack if done wrong, but great if done right.

    So for my five are:
    Russet-motivated by saving his sister even if it costs his life.
    Mr. Mortem-motivated by revenge on Russet.
    Mr. Edwards-motivated by guilt to try and put Russet behind bars.
    Arya-motivated by a threat to her power to seduce Russet.
    Anderson-motivated by a sense of duty to catch Russet.

    My MC is central to most of my character's motivations.

    1. Having a main character who is key to the motivations of others can certainly work. It can also make the characters' lives feel too small, so it just depends on the needs of the story!

  7. Okay! I'd like to play this game! Here goes:

    TAMMI HERSCHLAG: To survive the war without the help of her family (who have all been taken by Hitler's men).
    DEBORA HERSCHLAG: To secure her daughter Tammi's safety, even if it means never seeing her again.
    DIRK VAN MANEN: To prevent the war from taking the lives of anyone he loves--Tammi, his sister Emilie, his mother, his Resistance comrades . . .
    EMILIE VAN MANEN: To join the Resistance like Dirk and do something important to end the war.
    MR. VAN MANEN: To make as much money off the war as possible, while preventing his family from finding out.

  8. I always struggle with this! I love creating characters and my cast is always too big, but I get attached to the characters and don't want to cut them.