Guest post by Ian McHugh
One major challenge of stepping up from short stories to novels is managing a larger ensemble of characters. In my impetuousness, I exacerbated this problem for myself by starting from real historical events. Reality is way less tidy than fiction. In real life, people bob up and do one or two significant things that help carry forward the great events of history, and then sink back below the surface of the historical narrative. Translated into fiction, this amount to supporting characters walking on stage, having never been sighted before by the reader, doing their thing and then walking off again, never to be seen again. It doesn’t do a hell of a lot to deepen the reader’s engagement with the story.
Or, you might think of your protagonist in whatever context you’ve provided for them and start filling in all the normal relationships that would be around them in that setting, be they friends, teachers, family, crewmates, fellow Jedi apprentices, whatever. And you start giving them names and fleshing them out. As you start writing, you put your protagonist into a position to interact with them all. And then, finally, with all that sorted and the protagonist’s normal life firmly established, you start the wheels turning on their story. And as you go on, even if your protagonist remains surrounded by that same set of characters, most of them have very little to do and, by the time you do use them again, you’ve forgotten who they were, let alone your reader. But without those characters, the protagonist’s circle of relationships would begin to seem unrealistically small.
So what do you do?
I think the answer is a two-step process. The first thing is to map your characters in terms of their relationships. Now, I don’t just mean whatever haphazard spider diagram you might automatically come up with, but in a more structured way. (With due to credit to Chris Andrews) start with the central character triangle from Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey or Monomyth archetype – protagonist, antagonist and dynamic character.
The protagonist is the character who carries the story forward in pursuit of their objectives, but that doesn’t necessarily make them the good guy. The antagonist puts obstacles in the protagonist’s path, including the ultimate obstacle they have to overcome at the climax of the story, but that doesn’t necessarily make them bad. The dynamic character is the character who forms a bridge of some kind between the protagonist and antagonist – they may be the mentor to both characters (see Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars), the princess over whom the brave knight and the wicked witch do battle (see any Disney princess movie earlier than Mulan), the third corner of the love triangle, or some other character who understands or has a fundamental connection to both protagonist and antagonist.
Star Wars – in A New Hope, the central triangle is Luke (protagonist), Darth Vader (antagonist), Obi Wan (dynamic), which by Return of the Jedi evolves into Luke (protagonist), Emperor Palpatine (antagonist), Vader (dynamic). Obi Wan is the mentor to both Luke and Vader. Vader becomes the Disney princess who Luke’s knight needs to rescue from the Emperor’s wicked witch.
The Lord of the Rings – the central triangle is Frodo (protagonist), the One Ring (antagonist) and Gollum (dynamic). The Ring is the character that does most to stop Frodo from destroying it, by tempting him and those around him with its power. Gollum both understands Frodo’s temptation by the Ring and offers a salutary lesson to Frodo on the consequences of failure. Frodo offers Gollum the prospect of redemption.
Coriolanus (y’know, the Shakespeare play, lest I seem too low brow) – the protagonist is Coriolanus, but he’s also the villain of the piece. The dynamic character is actually the hero, the opposing general whose name escapes me but he was played by Gerard Butler in the movie (yeah, yeah, low brow). The antagonist is Coriolanus’s mother, who stands to the side of the contest of hero and villain, but whose influence prevents Coriolanus from becoming the simple, noble military ideal (as portrayed by Gerry) that he aspires to be. (Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is similar: Batman is both hero and protagonist but, while the Joker is the villain, he’s not the antagonist. Harvey Dent, Batman’s anointed but failed White Knight, is the antagonist. The Joker, the yin to Batman’s yang and the creator of Two Face from the man who was Harvey Dent, is the dynamic character.)
The great thing about a triangle is that each character is pulled in two directions by the others – instant conflict and tension, and conflict and tension are what stories are all about. Then, having established your central triangle, start placing the rest of your characters around it, based on how they relate to your protagonist. So, in the Lord of the Rings, Sam makes a second triangle with Frodo and Gollum (Gollum is the antagonist to Sam’s protagonist and Frodo is their dynamic). On the other side of the central triangle, Gandalf and Aragorn have the same relationship to both Frodo (mentor / protector) and the Ring (temptation to power – both could potentially become a new dark lord). This means they both sit in the same place on the relationship chart. So, you ask yourself the question: are they both necessary to the story? In the case of Gandalf and Aragorn, they are, because they have different and essential functions in the plot. But it might not be the case for your characters.
This brings us to the second step, which is simpler but more tedious: list all your named characters and write down next to them all the things they do to carry your story forward. Chances are you’ll find that some of them have similar or complementary functions – for example, in the case of my Eureka Stockade novel, officials within the colonial government. And then you ask yourself: could all of those similar things be done by one character? Do your very, very best to answer ‘yes’. In my case, this has resulted in scrubbing some real people from existence in my alternate universe, but it’s also resulted in a more manageable set of more substantial characters who are also more fully engaged in the story.
But what if this leaves you with the opposite problem to where you started, and now your cast of characters is too small to fill out the context you want to establish? Two things: First, judgement. No matter what tools you give yourself to help make your storytelling decisions, it ultimately has to come down to your own best judgement. Second, storytelling is like joke telling and magic tricks, it relies on sleight of hand. You only need to create the impression of reality, not a faithful rendition of it. Your choices of which details to breeze past or leave for your readers’ own assumptions to fill in can be as important to the success of your story as the details you choose to include. Maybe you don’t need to show your reader your character’s complete and realistic home life, or name all of their friends and classmates at the Jedi academy, just give the impression that these exist, and get on with your story.