Developing Characters With Purpose In Your Novel

In a Cast of Many, Few Stand Out

Most main characters in a fantasy novel come across dozens of people, creatures, swamp things, elves, orcs, dragons…well you get the idea. Therefore, it is crucial that the writer constantly examine the importance of every single character and interaction.

If you have ever read books where the primary group is too large, you know what it’s like to try to remain invested in the story. It can be a real challenge. Too few characters and the book doesn’t seem large or immersive enough. Too many, and the reader is aimlessly drifting through a sea of personalities, yearning for the old friend they met in the first chapter.

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Hard To Keep The Faith

We know that one of our biggest challenges as writers is to create a main character that people relate to, empathize with, root for, and have certain feelings for. They don’t have to love them, they just have to care about them. One of the biggest dangers in building a supporting cast that’s too big is losing track of the main character.

As stories go on, they get more and more complex. If the reader becomes detached from the main character, and all of the things they have come to know and love about them, everything else becomes much less interesting.

There’s Only So Much Ink

Every single word in a novel is important. If too few of your words are propelling the story forward, or touching the right story-telling chords, the reader will drift away. If too many of your words are written for a poorly developed character, those parts of the book will become something dreadful: boring. Those are the parts that readers skim through, hoping to get back to something they actually care about.

Think of a conversation between three people. How involved can they all be? I would say that all of them could be critical to that scene. In the right setting, the interaction between those three people can tell us a great deal about all of them, as well as about the bond between them.

Now, imagine seven people standing in a circle. The only possible way to have each and every character speak enough to matter would be to drag the dialogue out to several pages. Even if you did that, it would get mighty confusing with seven different people talking. It’s clear that in this example, the reader will not be exposed to most the cast and some of them will become more distant. If this happens too often, the reader loses track of people and the bond is severed.

Manage Your Cast Well

This is not to say that your book can’t have seven characters that are important. Most books are going to have many more than that. The magic happens when we choose which ones we really want the readers to connect with. It is a mistake to assume that readers will truly bond with a dozen characters in your first book. They may do so with two or three, and then simply enjoy the interactions those characters have with all the others.

Identify which characters are most important to your plot, and exactly what role each will have. After you have done that, be sure that you’re not overloading scenes with too many characters. Put the reader’s favorites front and center, and use the rest as support. Failing this step can cause many wasted pages of text on characters that the reader is just not invested in.

Keep the Reader Captivated

Most stories are character based. People want to care about the people (or creatures) in the book, and if they don’t the book becomes difficult to finish. Write your first draft however it comes out. Then, on your first rewrite, zoom in on the character development and examine how much time you’ve spent with each. This is even a good time to combine or eliminate those who snuck in there for no good reason.

It can be extremely difficult to get rid of characters after they spring forth from our heads as writers. However, doing so is sometimes the ultimate act of mercy to the truly great ones you’re saving.

Happy writing!

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