By way of introduction, Bruce Holland Rogers does many things extremely well — one is teaching fiction in the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts’ MFA program. Another is writing ultra-short fiction; he understands the need to make characters accomplish much in few pages. Find him at http://shortshortshort.com.
Bruce’s tip: character orchestration.
Briefly (and I’m paraphrasing), each character in your fiction should have a combination of weak and powerful traits. Characters can, depending on the circumstances or their needs, act from their strong or weak position. Now, here’s the clincher — in a well-orchestrated set of characters, each pair offers some contrasts and opportunities for interaction that could only happen between those two.
What I take from this is that a writer needs to think about her characters in relation to each other, rather than as stand-alone characters. That is, consider what qualities, needs, goals and so on you can give to one character that will enable you to illustrate aspects of the make-up of another character, or create conflict and tension on the page, when you put those characters together in a scene.
Bruce suggests that a character (let’s say, your protagonist) should have some strong elements of similarity and contrast with several other characters. That is, don’t overload one poor member of the supporting cast with all of the protagonist’s similar and contrasting traits. Spread the wealth, share the load. Allow each character to come to life through similarities to, differences from, and interaction with, a variety of your other characters.
Once you have created your cast, you can then orchestrate their interactions so that your characters earn their place in the story and so that your story moves ahead. How? Keeping in mind the strengths and weakness of your characters, their similarities and differences, and how they will act or react when in the presence of another character, you can decide which characters you need in a scene in order to cause the conflict, response or result that you desire. Then let them do their job.
Keep this in mind when you revise as well. If you find a scene doesn’t work, or is lacklustre, take a look at the characters in the scene. The characters must be there for one reason, and one reason only — to advance the story. Perhaps your scene is stagnant because a character is acting contrary to the traits you assigned — align the character’s actions or reactions with the traits. Perhaps the character doesn’t belong in the scene at all and is merely cluttering the scenery. Remove the lay-about.
And that last point is where I meet the biggest internal resistance when I try to look at my work critically. As a disciplinarian, I am weak, weak, weak.
I love my characters. I had fun creating every one of them. I have a great time letting them just fool around on the page. But, if I were to put sound to their antics, it would remind you of an orchestra tuning instruments. Okay for a while, but eventually really, really annoying to the audience.
There comes a time, Bruce would tell me, when I must pick up the baton, take charge of the rabble-rousing gang of goof-offs that are loitering in my manuscript, and direct them to make music. Or get off the page.
Pick up your batons, writers. Make beautiful music!
Great post! I saw Junot Diaz speak recently, and he said something similar: characters can only be understood in relation to other characters.
Thanks Marc. The orchestration tip helps me when I wrestle with showing and telling.
Great advice as I look ahead to polishing up this draft of my novel! An important word for me to remember here is “similarities”; I think I often focus too much on their differences.
Thanks for a very perceptive and useful discussion. Good thinking.
Thanks for the kind words, Wayne!
Me too. And I forget to give the “bad” guys some redeeming qualities…