Character Dynamics

It is a truth universally acknowledged that new writers have lots of really good ideas for new characters. Wait. That came out wrong. New writers put far to many characters in their books. I actually mine my first two books for characters to reuse.

The rule that many characters is wrong is one that I would encourage you to break. But before you do, practise and understand character dynamics.

Unless characters are joined at the hip (Merry and Pippin), each character has his own story. So if you settle on nine main characters, you will have nine stories to write (or eight in the case of LOTR). When the characters are together they will share the same story — so this makes it a little easier. When they are separated, there are TWO things to keep track of. The first — that most people get right — is spacetime. You have to keep track of where they are in space and how long it has taken them to get there. Fantasy writers are really good at space but hopeless at time. Chicklit writers seem to be the reverse. The second — that less people get right — is character dynamics.

Character dynamics manifest in two key ways, continuity and discontinuity. (The former seems to be harder for new writers.)

When characters who form part of a protagonist group or the protagonist's frequent entourage are established, their emotional relationship with the other characters should also be established. The development, evolution or steady condition of this emotional relationship should continue consistently. Example: brothers whose relationship is established as one of uneasy and unequal competition should continue in that competition until something occurs to alter the dynamic. Let's imagine they survive a dangerous encounter: subsequently, both attaches more value to his brother than to his own superiority, so rivalry diminishes, however we still expect to see occasional echoes of their former relationship.

The Lord of the RingsNow the more characters you have, the more stories you have to write, and the more character dynamics you have to manage. Lets add a bit stat math to the question. Combination (nCr) determines how many different character relationships there are in any group. Taking Merry and Pippin as one character you get:

{Frodo, Sam} {Frodo, Gandalf} {Frodo, Aragorn} {Frodo, Merry & Pippin} {Frodo, Boromir} {Frodo, Legolas} {Frodo, Gimli} { Sam, Gandalf} { Sam, Aragorn} { Sam, Merry & Pippin} { Sam, Boromir} { Sam, Legolas} { Sam, Gimli} { Gandalf, Aragorn} { Gandalf, Merry & Pippin} { Gandalf, Boromir} { Gandalf, Legolas} { Gandalf, Gimli} { Aragorn, Merry & Pippin} { Aragorn, Boromir} { Aragorn, Legolas} { Aragorn, Gimli} { Merry & Pippin, Boromir} { Merry & Pippin, Legolas} { Merry & Pippin, Gimli} { Boromir, Legolas} { Boromir, Gimli} { Legolas, Gimli} 

In all, 28 character dynamics. That's 28 stories for the character relationships alone. If, heaven forfend, you start to think about three way dynamics, you get 56 combinations. Tolkien wisely avoids some of the combinations above, and others he only touches on very lightly. Those that he does develop, he develops thoroughly. Those that he does not, he leaves well alone.

Dynasty - Seasons 1 & 2I find a helpful way to think about character dynamics is as a soap opera. Soap operas (and teen drama series) focus on character dynamics to the exclusion of plot - the whole key to continuity is the established relationship between characters, to such an extent that a moment of drama can be created by nothing more than having two characters whose history we know well meet in the street. Imagine Alexis and Crystal bumping into eachother in Starbucks.

Character discontinuity occurs when characters are separated, and undergo change, development or evolution while separated. When they meet again, their dynamic is altered. While this is more difficult to write convincingly, it is a ball that few writers drop, largely because it is a case where character dynamics influence plot dynamics. It's also, however, something that happens a lot more often in Real Life — but in real life its effects are generally subtler.

Character proliferation often arises from the naturalistic fallacy that I discussed a few days ago. RL is full of people that we know well. It is reasonable therefore that in a story that takes place in the protagonists' home town, we will encounter an awful lot of characters, and many of them will influence the plot. To avoid proliferation, one of the storyteller's friends is recombination. This is taking several real people whose influence on the protagonist is similar and combining them to make one character. The other is using characters as emblems of their group – so make only one jock, one cop, one storekeeper – but let them voice the opinions and deliver the influence of the crowd they represent.

Finally I would advise every storyteller to be very clear on who is an agonist and who is just a character. A character is anyone who is established (described and depicted) for present or future use.  An agonist is any character whose words or actions influence the plot, either directly or indirectly. Sometimes an agonist is a character we never meet, such as the hero's father who we get to know through the hero's reminiscences or reflections. Sometimes they are obvious, like an antagonist.


A footnote about Points of View. I'm sure I will talk about this more. Strong POV is when the author consciously chooses to narrate only what a specific character sees, experiences and knows. When the author uses strong POV he will typically point it out explicitly. There is a bit of a fashion at the moment to use strong POV, but where each chapter uses the POV of a different character. When this is done, the character's name is usually used in the first sentence of the chapter. Or the chapter title is the character name — a device that I think belittles the reader's intelligence.

Using this strong POV technique when there are many characters can work well, as long as the writer restricts himself to using only principal characters who are going to develop through the course of the story. When there is a chapter devoted to the POV of one random agonist, I guess it's okay, but it starts to get both difficult and (sometimes) annoying when every agonist has to have his own chapter, or worse, a random character gets a whole chapter to his POV because the author knew there was something the reader had to know, and none of the main characters were present to witness it. If the latter happens, then the plot is not compatible with the narrative technique, and one of them needs to be altered.

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