Characters: choose their enemies and friends wisely

The magic happens when your characters are together

Your characters don’t exist in a vacuum, but as a complex ensemble. So choose their friends and enemies carefully

There’s a game going round on Facebook – write down as fast as possible 15 fictional characters who have influenced you and will always stick with you.

This is the list I rustled up:

1 Cordelia (surname probably Lear)

2 Catherine Earnshaw (Wuthering Heights)

3 Jill Crewe (from Ruby Ferguson’s Jill pony books)

4 Doctor Who (Jon Pertwee incarnation)

5 Charles Ryder (Brideshead Revisited)

6 James Bond

7 Lucy Snowe (Villette)

8 Bathsheba Everdene (Far From The Madding Crowd)

9 Eva Khatchadourian (We Need to Talk About Kevin)

10 The narrator of Tanith Lee’s Don’t Bite The Sun

11 Alexa (from Andrea Newman’s eponymous novel)

12 The gay vampire in Fearless Vampire Killers

13 Ray (hitman in In Bruges)

14 Robert Downey Junior’s Sherlock Holmes

15 Purdey (The New Avengers)

I thought of the list in a hurry, as per the rules, and as you can see some of them have nothing to tell a serious student of storytelling. But my choices aren’t the point of this post. The point is, I found the exercise surprisingly difficult.

Characters in a story are like an ensemble

Only one character?

In each case, I didn’t feel it was fair to single out one character – because their memorable, influencing journeys relied on other characters too.

A character makes a lasting impression because of the other characters they spark off.

To look at my list, who is Cordelia without peevish Lear, scheming Goneril and viperous Regan? Who is Eva Khatchadourian without the terrifying Kevin, sweet Celia and straightforward Franklin? Who is Charles Ryder without his dreary father the divine Flytes?

Characters in a story are like a choir. It takes the whole ensemble to bring out what is in the MC and they deserve the credit too.

What about Lizzie Bennett?

Some characters are so iconic that you could argue they deserve the spotlight to themselves. Lizzie Bennett, for instance – where was my head when I left out her? She’s good value wherever she goes. But we see that only because her sparring partners are so well chosen. Indeed in that respect, Mr Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh are even more delightful than the essential Mr Darcy.

No character operates alone

No character goes through a story alone. Part of the writer’s fun is putting characters with others who will bring out the best, worst, be their opposites, nemesis, thwart them, push them to the edge and put their arms around them.

Who makes your main character most interesting? Who makes them do things? Who gets under their skin? Who completes them – or might destroy them?

So let’s play this game my way. You’ve seen who some of my favourite character combinations would be, and why – tell me some of yours.

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  1. #1 by Chris on December 20, 2010 - 3:42 pm

    Reading Franzen’s Freedom right now. Pouring through it actually. It’s very good. Patty Berglund is incredibly memorable in relation to her two lovers: her husband Walter and rocker Richard Katz.

    • #2 by Chris on December 20, 2010 - 3:44 pm

      As well as, frankly, all the other characters, from her son Joey and her daughter Jessica, to Lilitha (Walter’s young assistant) and even the “flat,” make-a-relatively-brief-appearance characters.

      • #3 by rozmorris on December 20, 2010 - 3:57 pm

        Wow, Chris, I think that one’s going on the wish-list!

        • #4 by Chris on December 20, 2010 - 4:00 pm

          Unless for some reason you hate the style of writing (very direct, very Anglo-Saxon at times with the slang and swear words and sex scenes)…trust me, you’ll like this book. It’ll pull you in and you won’t be able to put it down. Follow up with me if you can and let me know what you think if you read it.

  2. #5 by Jonathan Moore on December 21, 2010 - 1:08 pm

    I guess if the basic principle is that conflict creates stories, then it makes sense to have supporting characters define that conflict more sharply. The enemy angle is a given, but it’s worth remembering to make your MC’s allies a part of this too.

    I’m struggling to remember what I’ve read recently, but the classic example would be in Harry Potter, with Harry’s friends guiding the story with their own insights, needs, prejudices and weaknesses.

    If I wanted to be more erudite I could look to Forster, whose MC’s are constantly beset by the limitations of their friends. Lucy Honeychurch would let go much more easily, but her conventional friends are not bad people.

    Cheers Roz (and merry crimbo, if you’re into that sort of thing) I will revisit my story with this lesson in mind.

    • #6 by rozmorris on December 21, 2010 - 2:41 pm

      Hi Jonathan – and merry festivities to you too! Harry Potter has many good examples – the Dursleys, for instance, who squash all imagination and fun in Harry’s life. And here I have to admit I can’t remember having read any Forster… Christmas reading list beckons, I think.

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