A NOVELIST’S TOOL KIT
Continued From previous post: How to Publish Your Novel by Ken Atchity
Chapter Thirteen: Perfecting Your Craft
All five of these elements must be present in your protagonist. And as you’ve no doubt noticed, all of these attributes link directly to your novel’s action. Because in a good story, the action happens as it does because of who your protagonist is. Conversely, your protagonist develops as he does because of the way the action unfolds. Action and character drive each other.
All the elements in your novel must support this single line of protagonist in action. This holds true as well for all the other characters who populate your novel. Whether major, minor or functional, characters only belong in your story to the extent that they serve the action line.
Minor or supporting characters have a “tag”: a single attribute that defines them and makes them memorable. Any supporting character who isn’t memorable should be instantly thrown out.
A minor character’s “tag” can be just about any attribute: greed, lechery, or like Sally’s friend in When Harry Met Sally, an all-consuming desire to get married. Don’t spell it out, though. If a character is absent-minded, show it in action, thought and dialogue, don’t use the phrase “absent-minded” or you rob audience of the chance to figure it out for themselves.
A minor character can have a motivation but not a mission—that’s your protagonist’s job. They, too can evolve, but not along the same lines as your protagonist. Your minor characters are there to make his life more interesting. Establish them quickly, then move on.
Function characters play an even less important role than supporting characters. They perform a single function without being involved in the main character’s motivation. They ride in at sunset to deliver the fateful telegram, then ride away again. They serve the drinks, drive the cabs, do their duties, then go upon their way. Unlike your protagonist and minor characters, they’re supposed to be forgettable.
Keep function characters simple. If you spend too much energy on them your readers will start to think they’re more significant than you mean them to be. Then when the character disappears, it will feel to your readers like you left something dangling, or worse, like you misled them.
Keep in mind that your characters are not real people but devices that you invented for the sole purpose of capturing and holding your reader’s attention. As such, it’s your primary responsibility to keep them interesting. The best way to do that is to give them, at all times, something significant to do.
Your audience wants action. The best writers don’t get wrapped up in the complex psychological machinations of their characters. They write to satisfy their readers’ expectations. Your audience wants more than anything to see how your protagonist gets out of the corners you paint him into. All you have to do to create a compelling novel is: don’t disappoint your readers!
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Thank you for your useful advice.
My pleasure. Feel free to ask me any question you’d like me to comment on!
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