Writing Excuses 10.7: Who Are All These People?
Key points: How do you create multiple characters and keep them distinctive from one another? Beware of redundancy! Answer the question: Who needs to be in the story for the plot to move forward? Spear carriers are okay for scenery, but who needs a SAG card? More characters make the scene and story longer! Consider adding characters who are hindrances, problems. Also, think about which roles need to be real people. Why are they here, how are they important to the plot, and what do they want? Why does this person want to be in this role? (From method acting, what’s my motivation?) Characters need conflict and desires outside of the plot. Try for economy of characterization. Some good dialogue, a character in a scene. Individual reactions to main characters. Don’t let the what the secondary character wants take over the story. But also, don’t make the secondary characters only focus on the main characters. Watch for side characters that represent an entire culture or society. Remember, all aliens are not ET, nor are they Ripley’s nightmare creatures.
[Mary] Season 10, Episode Seven.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Who Are All These People?
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] And I’m Dan.
[Brandon] We are still talking about casting your book, meaning building your characters for your story. Now, we want to delve into a large cast and dig out how to create multiple characters, how to keep them distinctive from one another. Which I think is one of the big problems with building a larger cast, is redundancy. You end up doing the same thing over and over again. How do you keep them distinctive from one another?
[Mary] I’m actually going to jump in and say that I’ll… I also want to talk about how to deal with a small cast at the same time. Because some of the things are…
[Brandon] Short story writer.
[Mary] I know. It’s not all epic fantasy all the time. But some of the concerns are the same, it’s just that with a short story, you have to be even more concerned about redundancy. So one of the things you want to look at when you’re looking at the cast of characters and the story that you want to tell is what… Who needs to be in the story in order for the plot to move forward. Sometimes you want people in there just for background color, but we’re talking about front and center, secondary characters, as opposed to spear carriers.
[Brandon] Okay. Define that difference, then.
[Mary] Okay. A secondary character is someone who is serving a specific role, and usually, not always, they will frequently reoccur. They have lines, and they usually have a name. A spear carrier is a term from theater, which is… Or supernumerary. Which is basically literally someone who walks on the stage carrying a spear in the opera of Aida. They’re scenery.
[Brandon] Right. Actually, I had a theater major friend in college. He introduced me to the term, “Here’s your SAG card.” If you get to go on stage and actually say a few lines, you get a Screen Actors Guild card. That means you can now join it, you’ve said your lines. So I actually started thinking of “Does this character have a SAG card or not?”
[Mary] Yeah. That’s actually not a bad way to think about it. A character who has a SAG card would be a secondary or tertiary, but a spear character is a background character.
[Brandon] Yes. If they show up in the credits, they show up in the credits as Woman in Bar number four.
[Mary] Yeah, yeah. Most of the time it’s… Like it’s just random person in the marketplace.
[Howard] Orc number three.
[Mary] Orc number three, and they are part of setting the scene. So what we’re talking about are characters that you’re actually going to spend time on. One of the reasons that we need to worry about this is because it can make your scene and story… It will make your scene and story longer.
[Howard] It’ll make it bigger. One of the things that I look for… We’ve talked about how… Which characters, which suite of people do we need in order to move the story forward. I often look at which character can I put in place who is going to be a hindrance. As this character is trying to meet their own goals, they’re not the antagonist, but they are going to cause problems. How will we overcome those problems? Or will we?
[Dan] I just… It’s not out yet, so I’ll be very careful in how I talk about this, but the new John Cleaver book, The Devil’s Only Friend, the book begins with him working with a team of people. So realistically, plausibly, I knew he had to have a team, and I knew more or less what roles had to be on the team. I had to decide, “Well, are these going to be real people or are some of them just going to be background spear carriers?” Went through, and for each person on that team came up with this is why he or she is here, this is the important thing they are going to do to or for John, and this is the important thing that they want for themselves. So that they had a reason to be in the plot beyond just the fact that I had to fill out a team.
[Howard] It’s interesting, if you look at caper films, heist films, you’ve got the safe cracker, you’ve got the face man, you’ve got the hitter, you’ve got all these different roles, and that, in and of itself, is very template-ish and is not enough. What you want to say is, “Well, okay, I’ve got this character who is the hitter. Why does she like punching people? Why is this the job that she is best suited for? What set her up to be in this position?”
[Dan] If you look at Oceans 11, that cast frankly is a little too big, they didn’t have time to develop all of those people, and some of them are just, “Here’s the hacker.” He’s in a couple of scenes. But then you’d see where they did it really well were the two twins who were basically the distractions. They became some of the most interesting characters in that series, because they had real personalities, and you could tell this is why we hired them because they’re good at this.
[Mary] Specifically, they had real personalities because they had conflict with each other which gave them something besides the plot.
[Dan] Yes. Something to bounce off of, other than just, “Here, I’m going to plug one computer into another one.”
[Mary] Yeah. In Of Noble Family, I have this interesting problem which is that normally when you have… I’m doing these Jane Austen things. Normally you go to a great house, and there’s this giant… There’s support staff running the house, servants, which you… Normally the servants are spear carriers. This particular novel is set in Antigua on a slave plantation, and I could not have the… I needed all of the servants or enslaved people to be foreground characters, which meant that I didn’t have any spear carriers. Or almost no spear carriers.
[Brandon] That sounds really challenging.
[Mary] It really was. It meant that for each… Like for the chambermaid who came in, I had to make sure that I gave her a character arc, and I gave her stakes and I gave her something besides just bringing in this tray.
[Brandon] One thing that really makes me admire a writer, often, is when I feel like they are able to do this in a very short amount of space. They have an economy of characterization, which is what it seems like you really need for these characters. George Martin is very good at this.
[Brandon] There are a lot of writers very good at this, that you get just a short scene with someone. You know what they’re passionate about, you feel like they’re real and alive and they aren’t just another cog turning in this machine. This is what we have to learn to do.
[Mary] The example that I like is Agent Coulson in Agents… Not Agents of Shield, but the Avengers. When he walks in and you just get this one line about are you still seeing that cellist. It’s like suddenly he pops into focus as being a character.
[Brandon] Yes. Joss Whedon is very good at doing this.
[Dan] He was a character good enough that when he died, spoiler warning, everyone wanted him back. He got his own TV show based on a couple of really good lines of dialogue that fleshed him out.
[Brandon] So, how do we do this?
[Mary] Well, some things are like the… A couple of lines of really good dialogue, but it’s… The thing about like that cellist line. That tells us that he has a relationship, that there is someone that he is interested in, and that there is something that he wants, that he has a desire outside of this.
[Howard] At risk of spoiling a writing exercise which may or may not be coming, I think that one of the ways I do this, I draw. If I know that I’m putting a character in the comic, I start trying to draw them. That engages one part of my brain. But the part of my brain that composes words, the part of my brain that tells stories and makes language, is not really engaged yet, but is looking at this picture. And will start telling stories and spinning stories about this thing that I’m drawing. A similar sort of exercise for a writer is to put a character in a scene. Start writing some dialogue.
[Brandon] Let’s go to our book of the week. Mary, you have this book.
[Mary] Yeah. I’d like to talk about The Splendour Falls by Susanna Kearsley. This is a book that… So what she does is, she does historical fantasy that is interwoven with contemporary romance. So there is an element of historical fantasy. There’s… There’s a lot of really interesting things going on there, but she has really big casts with very interesting, diverse characters who she manages to sketch in really just very quickly. They pop into focus really, really well. So if you’re interested in seeing someone who does this something that is not… They are not hyperbolic characters. She does this with subtlety, the story is wonderful, it’s a good history lesson, and it’s beautifully, beautifully narrated by Barbara Rosenblat. She is just a wonderful narrator. As someone who does narration, I am jealous of the male voices that this woman is able to produce.
[Howard] Cool. If you go out to audiblepodcast.com/excuse, you can start a 30-day free trial membership and get Splendour Falls by Susanna Kearsley narrated by Barbara Rosenblat for free.
[Brandon] Dan, you had something you wanted to add here.
[Dan] Yeah. Before we totally leave Agent Coulson, there’s something that’s really cool about him that I want to make sure to mention. Why is he such an interesting character? Well, his whole job in the story is to react to the main characters. What makes him cool is that he reacts to each of them differently. It’s very subtle. He is kind of sardonically inpatient with Ironman. He is scared of the Hulk. He fanboys out over Capt. America.
[Dan] It’s just one or two sentences that is…
[Howard] But he leans on Black Widow and…
[Dan] Relies on them. There’s a sense of camaraderie there. He is kind of overawed by Thor. That’s the kind of thing you could almost do in a revision pass. Just go through and say, “I want to change his reactions subtly with each of the main characters.” That’s what fleshes him out.
[Brandon] That’s a really brilliant observation, Dan. I really like that.
[Dan] Thank you.
[Mary] The other thing that I want to point out, while were talking about making sure that your character has wants, is to make sure that these wants do not take over the story. For instance, using Coulson as an example, he wants to be with his cellist. There are no side quests about the cellist. None.
[Brandon] Another big problem here though is when the diverse ca… The side characters only seem… The passions are all focused on the main characters. I’m thinking of the harem story, right? Where the main character… The diverse cast quote unquote exists only to fall in love with him. It’s like a diverse cast is a different type of woman who can fall in love with him, and everyone does. This makes everything seem more shallow in the story.
[Howard] It’s when our side characters end up turning our main character into a Mary Sue.
[Brandon] Yes. It’s a very big danger. Another big danger with side characters is letting each one represent a culture or society. This is… You see this a lot and fantasy books, where this is the dwarf, and the dwarf has all of these personality attributes, which are now what dwarves are. Why is this a problem?
[Mary] Well, it’s… The… My favorite analogy for this is actually out of gaming. In which this gamer… And I wish I could remember the gamer’s name, said that if the only alien you ever encountered was ET, you’re like, “Oh, ET.” The next time you see… “He’s so warm and lovely.” Then you discover that actually he is a political refugee from a warlike species of xenophobic aliens, and that they have come up on the humans and just decimated them. Whereas if you run into Alien from Alien and you’re like, “Oh, these are terrifying creatures,” and the next when you see, you start to attack and you discover that actually that was…
[Brandon] Their diplomat who is…
[Dan] He was the flower arranger.
[Mary] That he was… Yeah, exactly. So the problem is that when you do that, when you have someone represent the culture, that it makes the culture seem monolithic. Without multiple examples, you make assumptions, because we as humans like to put things into boxes.
[Brandon] So, wait, wait, wait. You just said that our cast has to be distinctive from one another, but now you’re telling us you need to have multiple examples of the various cultures. What is the reconciliation between those two pieces of advice?
[Mary] It’s not that difficult, actually. There’s a couple of different choices, depending on how big your cast is. So in epic fantasy, you can have lots of people, just wandering around as secondary characters or tertiary or even spear carriers. If you’re doing a short story, you can do it with commentary by one character to another. If one character says something to your secondary character and uses a stereotype, and the secondary character reacts to it with like, “Really? Are you going to go there?”
[Howard] Yeah. Just having the two dwarves argue about something.
[Brandon] Yes. What it means to be a dwarf.
[Howard] Well, not even what it means to be a dwarf, but they could argue about… They could argue about food.
[Mary] Names in chocolate.
[Dan] It’s the difference between watching Gimli in Lord of the Rings, and then watching the enormous cast of dwarves in the Hobbit. They’ve got the one who is kind of prissy and offers Gandalf the really fancy coffee that he’s made. Then they’ve got the young one, and then they have the old one, and they all have different personalities to them. The wise one…
[Brandon] This… I said before, avoiding tokenism by making yourself create two characters that come from the same culture but are very, very different will force you to really examine that culture and those characters.
[Dan] You know, I’ve got a really cool actual historical example of this phenomenon. When the European settlers found the island of Patagonia, the first person they met was enormous. They went back to England and said, “We found an island full of giants.” You can find history books and maps and stuff that say Patagonia, which I think means like the island of giants. Then the rest of the explorers showed up and everyone was kind of tall, but normal people. Everyone… They all made fun of that first explorer…
[Dan] For essentially painting the entire island culture…
[Howard] Panicking because he saw a big guy.
[Dan] Based on this one enormous dude.
[Howard] It’s interesting. We talk about… We want to write side characters, not spear carriers, unless we need spear carriers. Comparing the Hobbit films versus the Hobbit book. In the Hobbit book, most of the… I mean, the dwarves are a stereotype, they are spear carriers, they are treated as a group.
[Dan] Yeah. You get strong personality from Balin, Bombur, Thorin and that’s pretty much it.
[Howard] Yeah. In the movie, we can tell them all a part.
[Brandon] Mary, you have our writing exercise?
[Mary] Right. So in the first of our character episodes, we asked you to write a scene using three different characters. Going to a marketplace and doing a dead drop. This time, I want you to pick one of those characters. They are now the secondary character in this scene. You’re going to pick a secondary character from that scene that you wrote…
[Brandon] Right. Someone that they asked for directions or someone… Whatever happened in your scene. If no one else spoke, pick one of the spear carriers.
[Mary] Right. That is now your pro… Your point of view character. Again, we want to make sure that they are well-rounded. So they need to have something at stake, and something that they want. And as you’re doing this, it’s the same scene, so you can’t change any of the main character action. All you’re changing is the point of view character. So you’re just watching the same action from someone else’s point of view.
[Brandon] Yes. You’re going to write a parallel story to one of the three that you did last time.
[Dan] You have to make sure that the character whose point of view that you’re using has a personality, has something they want. Because otherwise, this is just narration.
[Howard] Oh, the main character is so dreamy as he does this dead drop.
[Brandon] All right.
[Howard] Probably not what you want to write.
[Brandon] Yes, yes, yes. Unless the main character is Howard. Then…
[Howard] You went there. Thanks.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.