Short and Sweet Advice for Writers: Understand the Role of Your Characters

Share only enough character detail to enable your character to play his or her role well. The rest is irrelevant.

Share only enough character detail to enable your character to play his or her role well. The rest is irrelevant.

Characters are not real people. Even characters who are based on real people are not, actually, real people. Characters are carefully crafted facsimiles of real or imagined people, designed to play a particular role in your story. 

I have heard this truth many times before, but episode three of Jessica Abel’s podcast, Out on the Wire, really drove the fact home. (FYI – I gushed about Abel’s podcast in the Mar 20 Shareworthy Reading and Writing Links post.) In Walk In My Shoes, Abel explains how characters are puzzle pieces in a story, and just like any other story element, characters have a functional role to play. For this reason, it’s important not to get lost in all the available details of a character’s life and personality.

As the writer, it’s your job to sort of “sculpt” the character out of all the available material, whether that material is based on real life or dreamed up in your head. You need to carefully pick and choose the right bits and pieces on which to build each character. You need to decide what readers get to see, and what they don’t. What matters, and what doesn’t. Abel uses herself as an example:

“Jessica Abel is a person. She gets up every morning, gets her kids to school, goes to work, draws some stuff, comes home, and goes to bed. I don’t bring her in very often. She doesn’t add much.

Jessica Abel, the character in Out on the Wire? Now, she’s something. She’s an explainer, bold and clear-thinking, who investigates how storytelling works by interviewing the best storytellers on the radio, guiding you through how to tell stories step-by-step with wit and precision.

She’s got great hair, and her shirt is always white and pressed.

Her job is to be curious, to lead you through the elements of storytelling by revealing her own discovery and telling the story of how that discovery changed her.”

Abel is a real person who does real, everyday things. Characters you make up for your stories also have “real” and full lives outside the margins of your story, but the vast majority of those lives are not relevant to your story. They can be there, but they don’t matter in the context of the tale you’re telling. Sharing them with readers will only distract from your story. Don’t dilute the power of your story with irrelevant details. They might be really cool details, but unless they are directly related to the story, leave them out.


 

Exercise:

Take a character from a piece you’re working on and create a “character profile” that’s no more than a few sentences long. Try to capture the essence of the character by compiling only the most critical key back story elements, personality traits, and motivations. Strip away all the extraneous details and see what’s left, then see if you’ve created a character who can fulfill the functional role in your story.
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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Join me each Saturday for the Weekend Edition – a long-form post on writing and the writing life – and/orintroduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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Photo Credit: Benjamin Disinger via Compfight cc

12 thoughts on “Short and Sweet Advice for Writers: Understand the Role of Your Characters

  1. Pingback: Short and Sweet Advice for Writers: Understand the Role of Your Characters | Illuminite Caliginosus

  2. I do the same thing with my student actors. Fleshing out the character is what makes them believable. Thanks for stressing this point.

    • That’s so interesting. I’d love to hear more about the kinds of exercises you use to help them do that.
      🙂

      • Like you, I have them make a life for their character by writing a bio. They look at “who” they are in the scheme of the events of the play, research the time period, listen to “what” I s said about them by other characters, that sort of thing. We talk about dialect, costumes and customs of the “where” of the place. Discover “when” this takes place, and how they assimilate into the story. It’s allowing them to take ownership of the character and gives them the chance to really become the character for a time.

  3. I often find that my best characters are the ones that serve distinct purposes – that being said though, I have two very different methods for creating a character: they are either two dimensional and I focus on their purpose when drafting and then add more depth in later drafts, or there are fully formed and then I go back and pick out the bits that don’t suit the purpose of the character… my main character at the moment very much falls into the former – it took a good five or six drafts to get her right though

    • Interesting, Nick – so you’re either building up or carving away. Thanks for sharing!

      🙂

  4. Pingback: Short and Sweet Advice for Writers: Understand the Role of Your Characters – Bad Ambience

  5. Pingback: Short and Sweet Advice for Writers: Understand the Role of Your Characters – Brianna Bias

  6. I am a writer and I actually do not see character as ‘characters’, for me they are real people with real lives and feelings. And anything less is just not credible and not true

  7. Pingback: Character Advice! – jjsabriel

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