The children pulled back when Tommy picked up the…”
Most readers who read the above want to know what Tommy picked up. The reason some of you want to know Tommy picked up is because “The children pulled back” and humans, because of the way we’re designed, want to know what’s causing defensive reactions (pulling back is a defensive, flight based reaction).
My writing “The children pulled back when Tommy picked up the…” is intended to keep you interested, to make you want more, to cause (what marketers call) engagement. The way I do that is to have some truly unimportant characters show you something (their “pulling back”). Basically I’m foreshadowing. Before you find out what Tommy’s picked up you know it’s going to be unpleasant. Then you’re going to want to know why Tommy picked that unpleasant thing up and what he’s going to do with it. Tommy’s the main character, the children are just there to keep you reading. They are stage direction. They carry a big sign reading “This way to the End of the Story”. If the woman in the MindMaster Case File 455: The Unresponsive Male example says “Sorry, wrong office” and never enters the story again, she’s stage direction.
In The Augmented Man – Surface, everybody except Trailer is stage direction characters. Eddie and Bill have names because I want the reader to realize they have Trailer’s attention, more than anything else in the bar, more than the woman, the barman, the band, et cetera. I give them the names Eddie and Bill because such names indicate familiarity, meaning the reader can recognize them, associate with them, feel some empathy towards them, <spoiler> you learn a bit more about Trailer, a main character, and his capabilities.
“Cilly paused while the waiter filled her glass.”
The only purpose that waiter has (beyond filling Cilly’s glass) is the give Cilly a reason to pause in whatever she’s doing. The fact that she pauses lets the reader know Cilly thinks what she’s doing is something she doesn’t want the waiter to know. If that waiter never shows up again, he’s stage direction. His purpose is to focus the reader on Cilly at that point in the story and that’s it. The reader gets to see her pause hence gaining some insight into her character. Whatever Cilly shares once the waiter has left is important, it’s Cilly’s secret and again, human nature kicks in and we feel we’re in on a confidence.
Understanding character purpose is important because it helps you craft your story. For example, “Cilly paused to admire the fit of his pants while the waiter filled her glass” reveals something specific about Cilly that “Cilly paused while the waiter filled her glass” doesn’t and we’re back at the woman in the MindMaster Case File example. The waiter need never show up again but either the reader needs to know that Cilly’s into men’s fashion before that sentence occurs or her attention to sartorial detail needs to be referenced again – perhaps it’s an important plot point – later on in the story.
Stage direction characters are those that metaphorically come on stage, hand a main or primary character a note, walk off stage and never appear again. They don’t matter, the note does. Bring that same person on a second time and someone has to acknowledge them with a “Thank you, [their name]” because they’ve moved from scenery – stage direction characters are often part of the scenery – to secondary. That’s quite a leap! Bring that person on a third time and they have to play a role in the story; they’ve gone from stage direction to secondary to primary.
Remember the children above? If I bring those same children on again then I have to have them do something that moves the story forward. “One of the children, Sally, picked up a stone and threw it at Tommy. The others laughed.”
Okay, now one of these children is doing something more than stage direction in the story. Somehow, someway and somewhere, Tommy and Sally have to interact again. Sally may not be the story’s antagonist and she serves some purpose in Tommy’s character development. She’s secondary. She’s above stage direction and, depending on the interaction, could be primary.
The takeaway is “Give each character only enough screen time to fulfill some function in the story, to keep the story moving.”
And there you have it, how I map out, deal with and develop characters for my stories. Am I any good at it? You’ll have to decide and when you do, please let me know.
Next up, Ripping Out the Pattern.
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