Connecting Characters

You’ve got your novel’s cast of characters, let’s say. You’ve carefully considered the central conflict between two characters.You’ve thought through who else hinders–and helps–your protagonist. Some of these may feature prominently, heading up subplots.

If you’re inspired by Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, you may have discovered a character or two with dramatic archetype functions such as the mentor, threshold guardian, or herald. Fun stuff.

More work lies ahead.

A Deeper Cast

To be competitive you want to distinguish yourself from the “business as usual” cast of characters. One way to do this is to drill down into your cast and discover who is related to whom.

Related by blood. What if your hero and antagonist are sisters? Son and father-in-law? (Hamlet) Family conflicts are a major casting tool; consider using them in unexpected ways. What if the mother of the central female character loves the same man as her daughter? (The Thorn Birds.)

Related by ties of affection. Best friends, former lovers, close friend of husband. In Lie To Me, bringing the ex-wife onto the scene brought new weirdness and vitality into Lightman’s adventures. One of my favorite reads, The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson, is a remarkable tapestry of relationships, both kin and of the heart.

Relating your subplots. If it is impossible to tie your subplots together (either plot-wise or geographically) consider having the main characters of each plot connected by a blood relation or tie of affection. In Louise Marley’s Mozart’s Blood, the subplot protagonists are the characters in the main plot, but in a different lifetime.

Ties of the Heart

What you are digging for here is basic emotion. We empathize more easily with familiar relationships. You want to plumb that empathy. Getting to the emotional level is the key to great storytelling. Ever notice how often you say “I didn’t care about the characters,” when dismissing a story? And why didn’t the author succeed despite, perhaps, fine writing? Because there were few ties of the heart. Those the author attempted did not strike home.

Don’t be misled by how much you care for your characters. If you are bringing personal emotional ties to your story assessment, it may blind you to the fact that you haven’t gotten it onto the page. Work, work at making sure the ties are emotional dynamite.

I often wonder why some of the relationships we attempt on the page fizzle. One of my convictions on this is that we’ve told too much. We said what the reader should intuit, making the feeling all too easy. Ambiguity, barriers, denial, humor, and sweet, small details–all can add subtlety and richness.

But back to forging connections:

If you’ll forgive an example from my own work, let me list a few relationships around which I organized my series, The Entire and the The Rose.

  • The two central characters, Titus Quinn and Sydney, are father and daughter.
  • Quinn hopes to find his lost wife.
  • Quinn’s sister-in-law is in love with him.
  • Lamar is Quinn’s father’s best friend.
  • Quinn’s helper in the series (Anzi) began her role (in backstory) by causing his family’s imprisonment.
  • Anzi is the niece of an aristocrat who holds life or death power over Quinn.
  • Cixi–far removed from the Sydney subplot — considers herself Sydney’s surrogate mother.
  • Quinn makes a bizarre association between an enemy child and his own daughter. Mayhem, physical and psychological, ensues.

Don’t throw away opportunities to link your characters. Consider how you can stitch characters together who might not at first seem related. Don’t forget to look at how this stitching can effectively relate subplot to main plot.

It’s all in the casting.

4 Responses

  1. I hadn’t thought of my two characters that way, Kay. That’s an intriguing insight. One of the things that’s important to me as I create a cast of characters for a book is that each and every one has a backstory. For a while I was reading old novels, Mary Steward, Georgette Heyer, fun stuff, and one of the things it seemed to me the greatest books had in common was that every character, even a minor one, was fully realized. The reader doesn’t need to know every detail of the character’s history, but if they feel like real people with real lives of their own, it deepens the meaning of all the relationships.

    Now you’ve given me an idea. What about a story in which there are two protagonists strongly related by something, but who never meet? Hmmmm . . .

  2. Kay says:

    Oh, cool . . . and they might be twins separated at birth, and therefore bonded by a force of kinship neither of them understands, but the reader does. At the end, they almost meet by accident, but no.

  3. Interesting. My protagonist is dating a woman framed first for extorting her ex-, and then framed for killing him. Makes for interesting dynamics

  4. Kay says:

    Absolutely. There is almost nothing quite so complicated and ambiguous as an “ex.” Speaking of exes, I loved the ex wife-relationship in The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.

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