Getting the Best From Your Characters

If you write fantasy fiction (or at least read it) you’ll be familiar with the trend of having multiple viewpoint characters. It’s become such a part of fantasy, that we almost come to expect it when we pick up a new book. As writers, this can be a blessing… but it can also be a curse. You see, every time you add a viewpoint to your novel, you divide the reader’s emotions, thereby making your job 2/3/4x harder. That’s the theory at least.

Want to know what I think? I think a writer’s job is only as difficult as he chooses to make it. If you start off planning your novel and throwing in characters left, right and centre then you’re going to have a hard time. Characters should be carefully considered before even making it into your plan, let alone your actual first draft. If you add a character whenever you feel like it, you’ll soon end up swamped and having to contend with dozens of potential plot threads.

Think of it like this: every character equals a new story to tell. Every character equals a chance that you’ll lose your readers. But if you think of those two sentences together, you’ll soon start to see how you create an effective character. It’s all about the story.

Take a look at your characters. Now ask yourself some questions. What is that character’s story? What do they have to do with the main plot? What will they/do they actually do in your book? Too many times I have created characters who just seem to be there for the sake of it; characters who don’t have their own story but instead piggyback on the main character’s.

Here’s an example for you…

Robin Hood steals from the rich and gives to the poor. He loves the Maid Marian but has to contend with the evil Sheriff of Nottingham for her affections.

Now, what if we also had Little John as a viewpoint character?

Little John is Robin’s friend and greatest ally. As Robin and his Merry Men plot to defeat the Sheriff of Nottingham once and for all, Little John must ready the men for battle.

Meh. Kinda boring, isn’t it? I mean, what are we going to get from Little John that we don’t get from Robin Hood? Maybe a few scenes focusing on the battle tactics and training of the Merry Men, but that’s it. So what if we gave the character some depth. What if we gave him his own story?

Little John has been with Robin Hood since the beginning. But as he readies the Merry Men for a daring raid on Nottingham to end the Sheriffs reign of terror, something preys on John’s mind. A son he had thought dead almost a decade ago has been sighted in Nottingham under the care of a corrupt friar named Tuck. If John is to reunite with his son and win his affections, he will need to convince Tuck to side with Robin’s men in their righteous struggle.

Ok, it’s not great, but you get the idea. Give each of your characters a purpose and a perspective all of their own. In reality, our lives don’t all revolve around, say, President Obama, the Queen or the astronauts up in the ISS just because they’re deemed important. We all have our own stuff going on. Make sure your characters do too.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. How do you develop your characters? Got any tips to share?

7 thoughts on “Getting the Best From Your Characters

  1. cyelkoth5637 24-Aug-2013 / 19:51

    Great post! I have read several manuscripts where I couldn’t get into the story because there were too many character POV’s. I write scifi, which is usually multiple characters as well. For me, I always look to see if the new character is actually ADDING anything to the story, or if it’s just some fun tangent. If it’s a great little side story, but doesn’t really push the main story along, or give us new information that we need for the future, like an interweaving plot, then I either toss it or, if I really like it, make it it’s own story. (That’s how I wrote my third book–it is based off a side character from my second one.) As much as we get attached to our characters and wish we could keep all of them, it is our job as writers to write the story the BEST way possible. Pruning sometimes sucks, but it makes the plant healthier and able to live longer.

    • Gabby 25-Mar-2017 / 05:16

      You’ve really helped me untsaedrnd the issues. Thanks.

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  2. leeduigon 24-Aug-2013 / 20:47

    I have to juggle a lot of characters in my books. It’s not easy–but then if it was easy, everyone would do it. Thing is, it takes many years of practice.

  3. K R Green 21-Sep-2013 / 07:56

    This is something I’m looking at during my current edit. I already have a story for each character, and one that has conflicting or supporting goals of my main characters – but I’ve realised for a couple of my characters, that doesn’t come across in the book. Although I know the stories, that’s not really useful unless my readers can follow each character’s story.

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