By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
There’s one trick I use that makes writing—and developing—my characters a whole lot easier.
I’ve always been a bit of a pantser when it comes to characters. I figure out only the basics of who they are and where they came from before I start a draft, and I learn who they are by putting them into terrible situations and seeing how they get out of it. A “trial by fire” so to speak.
This has advantages and disadvantages—it lets me develop characters whose traits work for the story, but I also often wind up with two-dimensional characters at the end of a first draft. Sure, they become the people I need for the plot to work, but sometimes that’s all they are. This causes me extra work during my revision passes.
But a few years ago, I started doing things differently, and it made a huge difference.
Knowing what role a character plays in the story helps you determine which character does what in every scene—which helps characterize them at the same time.
A character’s role is essentially their function in the novel.
Whatever it is, any time something needs to happen in a scene that fits their role, they’re the ones to do it.
Roles help differentiate the characters, and allows you to develop them with traits unique to them. The mom character (the one who worries and takes care of everyone, not always an actual mom) will step up anytime someone needs comfort, or a firm nudge to do the right thing, or whatever “mom” means in your story. But they’re probably not going to ignore someone in pain or who needs their help.
In the early drafts of my current novel, my protagonist was fairly defined, but her two best friends were not. Their dialogue was a bit bland, they didn’t have strong roles, and I could have swapped most of what they said or did and it wouldn’t have changed the story any.
They were placeholder characters spouting the lines and doing the tasks I needed for plot, not individuals with a sense of agency.
And I certainly didn’t want that. I sat down with my draft, looked at the scenes and histories of these characters, and how they fit into the story to help resolve the conflict and drive the plot. Based on that, I clarified which role each one played, and revised so that aspect was stronger.
Let’s look closer.
This was an adventure story that sent three kids out into the wilderness to solve a problem affecting their town. From a technical standpoint, I needed someone who knew the magic (which involves plants), the wildlife (since they were in the woods), and how to survive on their own. These were the three most common aspects that appeared in some way in the story and involved the plot.
Bailey: My protagonist’s role was easy—she had the magic power and was the driving force behind wanting to solve the problem, and she had the skills necessary to do it. She was also the “good with plants gal.” Anything that involved knowing about plants and/or magic, she was the one who knew it or noticed it.
David: Friend One was a city boy with a scientist father who studied magical creatures. He was the one who shared information about the magical animals in this world, so he became my “he knows all about the critters” guy.
Ellen: Friend Two was a country gal whose family lived in the woods, and was used to the dangers of the woods. She became “the protector” and the one who knew how to survive in the wild. She helped keep the others alive when they would have otherwise done something stupid and died horribly.
Once I identified how each character fit, I better understood how they’d interact with the world, and each other. It kept any one character from being too perfect and knowing too much. It also gave readers different types of characters to relate to, which is particularly important in fiction aimed at teens and tweens.
Think about the aspects of your story you want to get across to readers.
Do you have a lot of information that needs to be conveyed? Are there world details, such as magic, or a specific profession you’ll need to explain? Are there particular character tropes, such as the Sidekick, the Mentor, the Love Interest? Maybe you have a Cautionary Tale character, or a Dark Mirror character. You might even have thematic roles for certain characters.
This is where knowing the roles really paid off. If the scene needed someone to understand plants and what to do with them (and the magic), Bailey would share it. If there was information about animals to convey, David was my go-to guy. When someone needed to point out the dangers or remind readers what could go wrong, Ellen brought it up or noticed it.
It might sound like a small thing, but it made it very clear in every scene who would say what, as well as what they’d notice about the world or situation.
Look at their personalities, backstories, and families, since that’s most likely where they learned whatever knowledge you’ll need them to share. If you notice they never have anything relevant to share, that’s a red flag that they might not have much to do in the story.
Knowing their roles meant I knew who would jump into action when (and why), so all three kids had a chance to get involved and shine. If someone needed protecting or defending, Ellen handled it. If it involved the main plot and using the magic, Bailey did it. If someone had to interact with the wildlife, David stepped forward (and often got himself into trouble, but that was also part of his character).
This gave me opportunities for each character to show off their skills and do what they did best, which also gave me options on how every scene’s conflict might be resolved.
A character who avoids confrontation isn't likely to charge out into danger to defend someone, but a “jumps in without thinking” type probably would. Knowing who would do what, when, and why, is handy when deciding which character needs to be in a scene.
The characters’ skills came from what I knew about them before I started writing, but they developed significantly as I focused on their roles. Bailey studied magic and plants, David helped his father research magical creatures, Ellen learned survival skills from her family. I could look at any scene and what problem they faced, and it was clear who had the skills to resolve the problem. Often, it took a mix of skills and the kids working together to overcome whatever obstacle I’d thrown at them.
Think about what skills you’ll need to solve your story’s problems. Figure out what each character brings to the table. What are they good at? What special skills or useful traits will come in handy at some point in the novel? What skills would they have naturally learned with their unique background? What traits would someone with their upbringing have naturally learned? If you need a skill later, how might one of your characters have learned it? Maybe change a backstory to fit that need, or give a character an opportunity to learn that skill earlier in the story.
Giving a character a role is a shortcut to figuring out who they are and how they fit in the story.
There’s always some overlap, of course, but that gives you options on who might do what when you need to mix it up some, which helps keeps scenes unpredictable. Just look at each character and decide who makes the best choice for that scene for what needs to be done or said.
It’s easier to write great characters when you know why they’re there. They have a job to do, as well as a life to live. Understanding that role and that life gives you a deeper well to draw from when writing a scene, because you’ll clearly see what that character has to offer.
Do you give your characters different roles? Do you have some favorite characters or favorite roles that come to mind? Please share them with us down in the comments!
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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author and founder of the popular writing site Fiction University, where she helps writers improve their craft and navigate the crazy world of publishing. Not only does she write about writing, she teaches workshops across the country, and her blog has been recognized as a Top Writing Blog by Writer’s Digest.
Janice also spins tales of adventure for both teens and adults, and firmly believes that doing terrible things to her characters makes them more interesting (in a good way). She loves talking with writers and readers, and encourages questions of all types—even the weird ones.
Find out more about writing at www.Fiction-University.com, or visit her author’s site at www.JaniceHardy.com. Subscribe to her newsletter to stay updated on future books, workshops, and events and receive her book, 25 Ways to Strengthen Your Writing Right Now, free.
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Thanks for having me, guys! Hope everyone enjoys this article, and uses it to improve their writing 🙂
I LOVE it when you post here because I always learn something. Thanks for this food for thought. I certainly give people character traits that mix badly with each other just for the conflict, but I never really sat down and thought about roles. So cool!
Aw, thanks! I LOVE traits that mix badly. That's so much fun. Especially when you need characters to get along, but still butt heads.
Great reminders that cardboard characters don't belong in the story. They have lives of their own.
Thanks! It might take a little more work, but it's worth it in the end.
I love this idea Janice! I think I'll find it very useful to define some of my character's roles more consciously - especially the sidekicks for my main protagonist. I have noticed in a scene I'm currently writing that I have dialogue that could be spoken by either sidekick - so this idea will help to sharpen both character and dialogue by making it more unique to them. Thank you for posting!!
Glad I could help. This definitely helps with dialogue. A first pass might be fairly generic as you figure out what needs to be said, then you can personalize it and sharpen the voice by giving it to right character,
I love this concept! Thank you
You're most welcome. It's quite useful.
Oh my gosh, I do this and hadn't realized it until reading this post. Thanks, Janice. Of course, having read this, I also realize my approach is haphazard. In the past, the reason for my methods was because I loved having a group (scooby gang) that worked together to solve problems, but also had personality conflicts. That, too, was a tendency I haven't long realized I had. Eventually, they become like squabbling family. The key, though, as you say, is to plug people in who have a role. That explains why I've struggled with a few characters because their role wasn't clearly defined.
I'm glad I could help you identify it, and hopefully you can fix that issue 🙂 Sounds like you're drawn to certain types of characters/stories, which is awesome. I've realized I like to write in threes. I almost always have a protag, and two sidekick types.
I know, right? I thought this exact same thing when I read the post, Christina.
Great post, Janice. This is something I actually do. Everyone has a purpose, whether it's to be a motivator, a confidant, or a roadblock.
Awesome! Do you know beforehand, or do you discover those roles as you write?
I wish some of the epic novels out there referred to people by roles instead of describing them, their backstory, and how they got their names. If they show up in one chapter and possibly once or twice more in the book, I'm happy to read "the blacksmith" (comic relief character) or "the moll" (constant thorn in the side) rather than being forced to recall who "Brander" and "Marnie" are. With an eReader, I can search for the first occurrence of each name, but it pulls me out of the story.
That's not exactly the focus of this article, but I just had to get this off my chest.
LOL vent away. I agree. Epic fantasy does like to throw in so many, many people. Even if they only give me "Hundar, the blacksmith" it helps.
Fantastic post, thank you, Janice!
There's a secondary, character I like a lot, maybe he's tertiary. Anyway, Spooky Steve is an old hobo with a kind heart and a strong sixth sense, hence "Spooky." He teaches some kiddos new to riding the rails how to do some practical things to help them survive. One of which is making hobo coffee using a sock.
Since he has a defined task, his character stands out.
LOVE him! The fact that you can sum up who he is and what he does so nicely is a great example of how helpful this technique is. He's Spooky Steve. 🙂