This is Part 2 in a 3 part series on purposing your writing, from a large scale to a small scale. See part 1 here: Purposed Scenes: 2 Things That Make Chapters Amazing Check back on Thursday to learn more about how to purpose your words.
You’re a good writer if you can cause sadness, anger, and happiness with only your words. The difference between an instruction manual and a poem or novel is that someone has put emotion into it. So how do you put emotions into your story and thus win your readers’ hearts?
We feel emotion when we read poetry because we feel the emotions the poet had when she wrote it. In fiction, we feel the emotions that the characters have. The purpose of your entire book is to explore the emotions of one or a couple main characters and take readers along for the ride.
You, as the author, need to know as much as you can about the character you’re writing about to make her seem real. The person reading, however, only needs to know some things. For instance, you know that your character eats every day, but if it’s not important to the story, you don’t need to say so. Anyone reading will assume that she eats unless you say otherwise. In the same way, they know that she probably interacts with more people than you mention. They know she probably has neighbors. It’s not always important for you to give them a part in the story.
Sometimes a minor character is interesting by his own right. If you talk about him too much, though, he can become a distraction. When your story goes off on a tangent about this other interesting character, we lose touch with the important characters. Suddenly your main character meets this other person, talks to him, and does things with him, but she’s never actually affected by him. He doesn’t make a difference in whether she meets her goals or not.
Every character in your story should have a personality and a purpose. If they have only a purpose, they seem fake and contrived. If they only have a personality, they distract from what’s important to the reader.
Here’s how you can know if you should include a character in your story:
- They have an important role in helping or preventing your character reach his or her goal. If this character is in the thick of the conflict at the heart of the story, he’s important. You can’t have a romance with only half a couple, and the Lone Ranger would never be who he is without Tonto.
- They relay important information that no one else can. Sometimes not just anyone can report a fact believably. A new character might have the authority you need to make it believable. If a friend from back home has died, the new neighbor wouldn’t know, but a visiting mutual friend can.
- They represent an issue or ideal. Effie didn’t do much either to hurt or help Katniss, but her actions and reactions were an understandable representation of the Capitol’s population. Without her, we wouldn’t have understood how the people viewing the Hunger Games got caught up in the excitement, and later how they selfishly regretted that Peeta and Katniss were supposed to die. Sometimes characters are a way of showing instead of telling.
Even if a character is important in one scene, make sure they’re not in any scenes where they’re not important. This can go two ways. A character who doesn’t need to be around could steal the show and make your readers forget what the scene is actually about – the main character’s problem. Or you could forget the character who doesn’t need to be there.
If Joanna, George, and Louis all go to rob a jewelry store, and Joanna and George have an argument that gets them caught, what happened to Louis? What was he doing while they were arguing? If he doesn’t do anything more than interrupt to say the alarm was triggered, he probably didn’t need to come at all. Joanna and George could have found that out themselves.
On the other hand, if the book is about Joanna and George’s love story, you shouldn’t include a scene about Louis’ home life that doesn’t change how Joanna and George feel about each other. Any event that your main characters witness without participating in is distracting to the story. Forgetting your main characters is like forgetting the reader.
Keep your focus on the main characters, and you keep your focus on the emotions that are most important to the person following them. Your readers’ emotions are the most precious thing you have as a writer. Take their emotions in too many different directions and you’ll lose them. Focus their emotions on your most important character and you’ll keep them gripped in a story they can’t get enough of.
How does focusing on one or two main characters affect your writing process?