Plotting is delicate stuff for a would-be pantster like me, but there does need to be some sort of structure underlying writing, however much we would like to avoid the idea. And populating our stories demands a little thought.
In a mini-series, I thought it might be an idea to follow those old chestnut questions of the journalists: who, what, when where and why? How? might pop up too, but we’ll see how we get on. Today we tackle ‘Who?’
‘Who ‘ relates to our characters, those who populate our stories and novels. Each person must have a role to play, a reason to exist within our pages. If there is no reason for them to be there, they must follow the fate of all rubbish: into the bin with them – in our case, via the delete key.
It’s sometimes useful to use the Archetypes, those you find in mythology, in fairy tales, even in modern films. Even if this is not your usual method of choosing characters, some you will recognise straight off: people you know from Star Wars or Tolkein or C.S. Lewis.
We start with the obvious:
The hero or protagonist. Male or female, this is the driving force of our tale, the person who will shape the narrative and grow throughout. He must learn something or acquire something along the road. It can be something concrete, like treasure, or something more abstract, such as wisdom, but he must get that elusive something by the end, or achieve something greater than he thought he wanted in the beginning.
Opposite him, the antagonist or shadow creature. He may be the villain of the piece, but could also be the dark side of the hero, expressing the hidden or unacknowledged aspects of his character. Usually, the antagonist will be the opponent who will end up bringing out the best in the hero.
But beware of making your hero all good and your baddie so very bad. Round them out, so that each possesses some traits which we can identify as desirable, and those which are definitely not. A baddie who has no good side, and no reason to be bad, is just a cardboard cut-out and will not pass the reader’s critical eye.
Often our hero will have at least one buddy or Mentor. In tales of sword and sorcery, this will be the sage or wise old man, or some ancient old crone wielding magi. He might be a tin man alongside a lion if you’re reading the Wizard of Oz. Typically, a mentor will offer our hero magic or words of wisdom or some precious gift only after he has earned it by showing his commitment or passing a test.
As the tale begins, we may meet the Herald. This might be the mentor, the antagonist or some other character, who signals a change to the hero and demands he take on the adventure. His job is to jog the hero’s elbow or conscience and provide him with the motivation to get the adventure underway. He might also pop up again later to signal some change of direction in the story.
The Child or the Damsel in Distress. Often included in fairy tales, the object to be found/discovered/rescued would fit in here, though it may not be an obvious archetype. Abandoned, innocent, endangered, orphaned, wounded, magical – all these can sum up the Child of your story. You might also find there is a MacGuffin here. Not strictly a character of itself, that wonderful word describes some unique thing (which could be anything at all: Sword of Destiny, Lost Ark of the Covenant, or a special cup that held a chocolate milkshake!) which our hero seeks as part of his journey. It is simply a plot device that motivates both villain and hero into embarking upon the adventure. But sometimes the damsel/child is really a MacGuffin. Just something to get the plot underway.
Closely connected to the Herald is the Threshold Guardian. His job is to make sure that the hero is prepared, is worthy to set out on his quest. He might set tests or demand payment before the hero can begin. Sometimes this guardian may be the mentor, possibly disguised a helpless old man, who pushes off his dark cloak and offers a sword or some such weapon, once the hero has shown mercy or given food or whatever was demanded. There may be no threshold guardians at all, or there may be several, each occurring at a crucial moment, demanding a new set of skills or beliefs to progress through the narrative.
Is there a Clown or a Trickster in your tale? He might be the hero’s nutty sidekick. His job is to effect change, without being changed himself. The catalyst, the guy that manages to upset the apple cart, sometimes without really trying, sometimes deliberately. He may be the comic relief or may serve to cut your hero down to size just when he seems to be getting to big for his light sabre.
Then there might be a Shapeshifter. This elusive character can transform from good to bad, from Mentor to Herald, from Trickster to Villain. His job is to confuse or to lie, to delay; to make you ask ‘just whose side is he on?’ He is unreliable, but through his changing appearance, mood or side, he brings tension into our tale. He may be were-wolf or vampire or femme fatale or some such person. He will switch allegiance to further his or her own ends, possibly as part of a sub-plot. Beware the Shapeshifter! He has his own agenda.
So these will probably be the main ‘who’ of your story. There may be more than one of each, particularly if your story progresses Hobbit-like, with different mentors and tricksters coming in along the road. There will be walk-on parts for minor characters – un-named and kept to a minimum – and people who pop up as part of crowd scenes to fade away as need arises.
But these people you must cast carefully. They are the bones upon which your plot will hang.
Are you into archetypes? Do you choose your characters in your stories based on them? Or have you never come across them before in your life? Do tell!