Do Your Characters Need to Get a Life?

Do Your Characters Need to Get a Life?

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In a fictional story, everyone has a role to play. Beyond Beth’s part as waitress at the meeting between the protagonist and antagonist, the story doesn’t need to know anything about her. If you ignore her completely, Beth will be about as interesting as one of the empty chairs. If the main characters are alienated from the real world, they may fail to notice anything about Beth. It’s that kind of story.

Normal people are social. They will notice at least a little about Beth. What does she look like? What’s her attitude? Customer service dictates her outer attitude. Does the narrator see further? What do her clothes and the way she moves say about her?

Relationships for Minor Characters

Beyond Beth herself are her relationships. You may protest that she’s a minor character incidental to the story. Why do we need to know anything about her relationships? They can feed into the mood of the story.

Different genres have different moods. The first way you can influence mood in the scene with Beth the waitress is in the choice of restaurant type. Is it a low cost diner, mid-range restaurant, a bar and grill, or a high priced suit and tie kind of place?

The characters having the meal will have picked the restaurant. Their professions may be an influence. The cost can be a factor if one or both are broke. The biggest factor in the restaurant choice will come from you, the author. A finance story isn’t going to use a dusty old diner. A crime story will probably use a bar unless it’s the people at the top getting together. A romantic meal works well in a mid-range restaurant where the diners have privacy.

Relationships and Genres

Back to Beth and her relationships. The people Beth interacts with during the meeting between the important characters in the story help set the kind of story it is. They help establish the genre. Consider several types of people she might meet and how it could go.

Beth is confronted by the manager about taking long breaks when it’s slow.

Beth’s ten year old son arrives and shows her a school project with a good grade.

Beth’s twenty-five year old son arrives and demands money for drugs.

Beth’s boyfriend arrives in a good mood and wants to take her in back.

Beth has a subdued conversation with the other waitresses that ends in high fives all around.

These other relationships for Beth match the real world. Workers still meet with friends and relatives on the job. Your choice of interaction can match the genre or oppose it. For example, if you’re writing a crime story, the son demanding money for drugs matches it while any of the happy scenes oppose it.

Why would you want to pick a scene that’s the opposite of the genre? The contrast makes the genre stand out more. The extortionist is getting rich but has nobody. The waitress is broke but has friends and family.

Another purpose behind relationships for minor characters is that the story has something going on besides the straight conversation between the main characters.

What about relationships for the important players?

Relationships for Major Characters

Unless they are totally broke, psychopathic, or suffering from severe depression, most people have some relationships going. Even those sad cases usually have some friends. Major characters will have many relationships. If the story demands they don’t know a lot of people, they can be new in town. Most of the time that won’t be the case.

Who are your characters’ friends and relatives? They can be short of relatives because of moving for work. They can be short of friends because of changing jobs. Most people aren’t short of both.

Be aware of the full range of potential relationships. I couldn’t name them all, but here are a few.

Relatives: Parents, grand-parents, aunts and uncles, siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews, and children. Repeat the list two more times with “step-” and “half-” before each of those.

Friends: Current and former co-workers or neighbors. Friends who share a hobby, drinking, drugs, or go to the same gym, church, bowling alley, etc. Friends met while waiting somewhere or through resolving a conflict together in a public place.

Enemies: These should fade away, but sometimes they just keep hanging around. Why? They are co-workers or neighbors. They are getting or paying child support or alimony, maybe both. They are a stalker or there is some secret agenda motivating them.

Pets and Hobbies: Neither of these are people, but both pets and hobbies can be as big an influence on some characters as actual people. They are always mentioning their super smart dog or new additions to their collection of classic hard cover books.

Relationships take a person out of isolation and keep them motivated to get things done. Relationships make your stories more realistic. Do your characters need to get a life?


Article by Ivan Izo.

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