Finding the purpose of your characters
Over this weekend I finally hit my next mile marker for the revisions of Max Bear. I finally got all of my characters sorted out and a character card written out on all of them. And while some of them still have a very sparse description block, the big and most important part of them got done. I have a definitive purpose for each of my key characters. Figuring that out for each of them has shone a brand new light on the characters and my story. In fact I am surprised that this step isn’t more talked about in revisions and edits. So I am going to try to fix that and talk about having a good purpose for each of your characters in your stories.
What do I mean by having a purpose for your character? What does that mean? I am not talking about some deep inner purpose of the character in the sense of destiny. And I am not even talking about what the character thinks about themselves or the other characters. What I am talking about is the purpose of have that character in the story in the first place. What place in the story do they fill that helps the story move forward? That is the important type of purpose we need in writing.
The most obvious of purposes for characters are the two most important ones: protagonist and antagonist. Without these two the average story just doesn’t work. And while there are stories without a clear antagonist or with multiple antagonists there aren’t really any stories without a protagonist. These two roles can take plenty of forms and ultimately there is nothing that says that they have to take shape as the point of view character and the villain. Your narrator might be the side kick like Watson for Sherlock Holmes. And your villain might not be your main antagonist like in the Dark Knight with Joker being the villain but Harvey Dent being the main antagonist. These character purposes are the most important but like all of them don’t necessarily have to take on a specific form.
The next set of purposes that I think are a close second to protagonist and antagonist are the relationship character and the stakes character. These two things are huge to really give depth to a story. Unlike what it sounds like the relationship character purpose is not the love interest necessarily. This is the character that through their relationship with the protagonist the story’s theme is shown. More often than not the thematic question is literally brought up by the relationship character to the main character near the beginning of the story and then near the end that question is answered back to the relationship character. (Thank you Lou Anders for this concept. Go to his interview on Writing Excuses for a great explanation of the protagonist, antagonist and relationship characters.)
The stakes character purpose is to be the personification of what is at stake in the story. Sure it is important that the world might explode if the villain succeeds, but what shows the importance of that life or death problem is the stakes character that needs to be saved and in the process the world gets saved. This character gives a face to the seriousness of the problem. Without this character many huge problems seem too big for the main character or too abstract for the reader to fully appreciate. It is hard to wrap your head around one person blowing up the world because it is so horrible but it is easy to understand the Lois Lane is in trouble and Superman needs to save her.
These four characters are huge to the main plot of the story but most stories are going to need a more full cast of characters. In My Story Can Beat Up Your Storyby Jeffrey Schechter, he goes into great detail about a series of character purposes that perfectly outline a good cast of characters that either help or hinder the protagonist during the story. These purposes are as follows: The Protector, The Deflector, The Believer, The Doubter, The Thinker and The Feeler. Each other these are paired up to both help and hinder the protagonist in the story. And by figuring out how your characters fit into these purposes it will help define their role and how the interact with the story. A simple run down of them gives you these basic explinations.
- Protector keeps the hero’s moral compass
- Deflector tries to pull the hero off their path onto a different moral compass
- Believer trusts the hero just as they are
- Doubter argues with the hero’s path and what they are doing
- Thinker ponders over the hero’s actions and then takes their own actions
- Feeler is the one that shoots first and thinks later
Each of these purposes are simple and straight forward but the application of them can range the gambit of character types. And as you look more into your characters you can see which one fits these roles in the story. Then by refining that role for that specific character it will help focus the character’s actions throughout the plot.
Finding your characters’ purposes in your story is another tool for revisions. I suggest that this step be done when you come up with your story in the first place if you are an outliner. But both outliners and discovery writers both can benefit from doing this between your first and second drafts. Maybe even doing it between each draft. It is a good gauge for what characters are important and which are just there because you like them. In the end you can always cut characters or tweak them to make them work that much better.