In every story there are characters. Some characters will be the main characters in the story, others will be relatively minor. All characters mentioned in your story should have a part to play. A policeman saying one line, can be pivotal to the story, even though the policeman may never be seen again within the story.
There is no minimum or maximum number of characters that there should be within a story. The number of characters you have will obviously depend on the type of story you are writing. A wide reaching, generational saga, will obviously have more characters in the story than a story of conflict within one family of three.
When developing your plot concept, consider the characters you need. As you said above is not want to spend a long time writing characters that you eventually realise you do not need. So when considering your characters, consider how they develop the plot. Are they essential? Do you need that policeman to say one line? It might be that you do. But if you don't could another character say the line?
Your characters are the cast of your story. They do not necessarily have to be humans. They can be animals, aliens, monsters, super heroes, vegetables. They may be natural or supernatural. The characters that are in your play or story or novel, will depend upon the story that you are writing.
A writing your characters, consider the depth in which you need to describe them. Going back to the policeman, if he is only going to say one line do you need to describe him in great detail? It may be enough to say the policeman said ...
However, we may wish to say something about the policeman, because his one line is pivotal to the plot. If he tells the hero or heroine to go off down the wrong track, which results in their meeting their doom, should we describe him in a sinister way? In a friendly way, to throw the reader off track? Or not describe it all, to make the reader shocked when the disaster happens? All of these are the hallmarks of a good writer. As a writer you need to decide how much information to give and how much to conceal from your reader. We should never tell the reader everything. We need to leave space for the reader to use their imagination. When we describe the policeman were telling the reader exactly what they will see. Do we really need to do that? Or, would it be just as effective to tell the reader simply that “a policeman pointed the way” and let the reader decide what he looks like, how he stands, what he is doing etc. This is really up to you. Remember, some characters we want to draw with broad strokes, whilst others will need the intricate and fine detail that is required for the plot and story.
Even when describing characters in fine detail, we still need to leave some points to the reader's imagination.
The old woman sat with her hands on her lap. She played with her blue tinged fingernails. Her newly permed hair was tightly curled.
We can read those lines and make a decision about the person. We have some idea that the type of person she is. The start we know she is a woman, she's old, but we do not know how old. The fingernails of blue tinged. Why would that be? Is she cold? Did she have an illness? Her hair is newly permed and tightly curled - what does that tell us about her? All of these things will say different things to different readers. The writer can make their description of the characters, but it's up to the reader to decide what the character is really like.
Have you ever read the same book or watch the same program is another person and then disagreed about whether a character was really nice or not? You know the evil antagonist of the story. You may have thought that underneath they were actually good, whilst the other person thought they were just evil through and through. Our readers will do the same. They will read what we write, and make a decision about character. They may not agree with what we, the writer, actually says about the character. They may think there is something underneath that we are missing, or that we have not told them. They are using their imagination. However they view our characters or however they use their imagination, we want our readers to engage in our story, to be emotionally involved. So no matter how much we describe our characters, it is up to the reader to decide who they truly are.
Whilst we must leave some aspects of a character to the reader's imagination, we must also ensure that the characters are developed sufficiently. It is if there is not enough development of the character, the reader may feel uninvolved.
When developing your characters, you as a writer responsible for ensuring that the characters have the correct characteristics to ensure the story you want to write actually develops. For example, it is no good at developing a character who is obviously poor, wears shabby clothes, and obviously has little money and then trying to develop a storyline where that person is blackmailed. Unless, the shabbily dressed person is actually rich but chooses not to live the lifestyle of a rich person. If that is the case we must give clues to the reader. There is nothing more disappointing than finding out halfway through a story that the person who appears to be a tramp is actually a rich millionaire. We might give clues such as, he is well spoken, talks about going to foreign lands, appears to eat well, drinks good whiskey, anything that just gives a clue to the reader so when they find out that he is actually a millionaire, they won't be surprised.
So basically, when you start to develop a character, we have to ensure that we are giving them all the backgrounds and characteristics required to enable us to write our story. A person can not be blackmailed if they have no money, would not have anything that another person may want. A person cannot be blackmailed if they do not have a deep dark secret. The police wouldn't be after a person, encouraged them to go into hiding, if all they had done was get a parking ticket.
We must make our stories believable. The building characters, considers dilemmas that they may face. For example, a mother has to choose between saving a dog or saving the life of the two children. We will assume that you choose her two children and save them. But what if she didn't? What if she chose to save the life of the dog and as a result of her two children died? If that happened in our story the reader might not believe that a mother would choose to let her own children died rather than a dog. But if we let that happen, we would have to explain her decision in a believable way. If we decided to explain it in a way that she did it on the spur of the moment and then regretted it for the rest of her life, we could then describes the reader the despair she felt, who regret at what she did and so on. We can make our characters do anything they like, but when we do we need to be able to explain why they did it in a believable way or, if we cannot explain it reasonably, we have to explain how they felt about it after. For example, if you had a character who was a complete psychopath, who had no feeling for any other human or animal, he might let the children and the dog die. But feel no remorse at all. This may be more believable if the reader knows that he's a psychopath.
In a novel, we must make our readers believe that a normal person, an ordinary person, can do extraordinary and interesting things. If you want the character to achieve something or to overcome some obstacles, we have to give the character the necessary skills personality and character to enable them to do that. The same goes for failure. If we want the person to fail, we show the reader that they are flawed and give clues that they might fail. We are not saying that you want to give away all your clues, so that the reader knows the ending before they get there, clues can be very subtle but do need to be there to make your story believable.
So how do we build a character? When you started your novel decide to your characters are. You may have a hero or two heroes or a group of heroes. By hero, we do not necessarily mean somebody who performed heroic acts, the hero is the main character or characters in your story. Then we have the protagonists, who the hero will fight against argue with or have some conflict with. You may have other main characters, perhaps a love interest, a work colleague, a close friend who is also integral to the story. So before going on to write your story, decide who are your main characters and then, who are your minor characters.
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