Fiction characters have a dramatic function and a role in advancing the plot and theme of your story. They need a reason to be there.
Your characters need to appear real without being real. Characters in fiction fulfill a dramatic function in the story for the reader and are, therefore, more logically laid out. They may, as a result, be more coherent, consistent and clear in their actions and qualities than a person in real life.
In his 1995 article in SF Writer called “On Writing: Constructing Characters”, Hugo and Nebula award winning SF author Robert J. Sawyer reminds us that “story-people are made-to-order to do a specific job.” This notion goes back “twenty-five hundred years to the classical playwrights,” says Sawyer. “In Greek tragedy, the main character was always specifically designed to fit the particular plot. Indeed, each protagonist was constructed with an intrinsic hamartia, or tragic flaw, keyed directly to the story’s theme.”
When we begin to tell stories, our characters can often suffer from lack of distinction or purpose; they will clutter and dilute a story’s promise. You may wish to focus on fewer rather than many characters. One way to tell if major and minor characters are fulfilling their role in story is to assign one or more archetypes to them (see my earlier article on archetypes in the Hero’s Journey). If you can’t come up with an archetype for that character, he or she may simply be there, filling up unneeded space. You might need to merge two characters into one or nix a few altogether. This is especially important in short story. The most common thing new writers do is clutter a short story with too many characters and associated sub-plots. These stories are actually novel-wanna-be’s.
You achieve distinction in characters, including minor characters through a number of ways. One is “voice”. A character’s “voice” must be unique. Give your character distinctive body movements, dress, speech, facial features and expressions that reveal his inner feelings, emotions, fears, motivations, etc. Then keep them consistent.
It may also be useful to create character dossiers on major characters to help keep track of their distinctive traits and keep these consistent. Dialogue is an excellent tool to reveal a person’s education, philosophy, biases, culture and history. A character’s inflections and common vernacular can be used to identify them from a particular region or culture.
Fictional characters come to life by giving them individual traits, real weaknesses and heroic qualities that readers can recognize and empathize with. You play these against each other to achieve drama. For instance, a man who is afraid of heights but who must climb a mountain to save his love is far more compelling than one who is not afraid; same for a military man who fears responsibility but must lead his team into battle; a shy scientist impelled to discovery; etc.—the hamartia that Sawyer talked about.
Make your character bleed, hurt, cry, and laugh. This needs to be clear to the reader, who wants to empathize with some of them and hate others. How characters interact with their surroundings and with each other creates tension, a key element to good storytelling.
“The lesson is simple,” Sawyer tells us. “Your main character should illuminate the fundamental conflict suggested by your premise.”
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.