Monday, March 16, 2009

Dramatic Purpose

Revising my current novel has meant some large-scale changes to the narrative. One set of these changes will involve taking a character who has been only talked about and putting her into scenes. I'll give her a real personality, dialog and a recurring role in the book. In order to accomplish that, I need to know who she is.

This weekend was supposed to be devoted, at least in part, to figuring this character out. I pushed some ideas around, but really didn't come up with anything of use, because I had no real idea where to start. I didn't know how to invoke this woman's presence until this morning's helpful epiphany, which has to do with dramatic purpose. What follows might not apply if you write genre fiction as opposed to interpretive ("literary") fiction, but I'm betting it does, so bear with me if you will.

A good story, I think, has a purpose--a reason to exist. Whether that purpose is to discuss how (for example) one man faces the darkness within himself while being exposed to the darkness of the real world, or (as a different example) to take the reader on rollercoaster ride through a ripping good yarn, there is a reason you're telling the tale. And every element in your story should serve the story, and you should have at least some idea how those elements work together to create your narrative. Which leads us back to my unknown character. There's a reason I put her into the book in the first place, and if I think about that, and I think about the purpose she serves (to be a sort of foil character to the two other main female characters, and to show a relationship that is an alternative to the other primary relationships in the book), then who she is begins to become clear. She has to be certain ways to fulfill her duty as a character in this particular tale. So as I write her scenes, I'll be thinking about Astrid's dramatic purpose: why this particular character is in this particular book, and that will tell me who she is. One hopes.

Anyway, the point is, I think, that if you don't know who your characters are, it's possible that you don't really know why they exist, and you might want to think about that.


  1. I've eliminated a lot of characters who lack purpose. It's not always easy, but it is always necessary.

    Off topic:

    I used "it's" and "it is" in the last sentence. That's frowned upon, right? But doesn't it have better rhythm? Hmm...maybe it messes up the emphasis. Perhaps I've written too many poems recently.

  2. Great post, Scott.

    As it happens, I'm struggling with something similar myself. I am writing genre, as, as you say, it puts a slightly different twist on it. Characters in genre don't always exist to illustrate character. (Ironic, but true.) In a mystery, frex, a certain number of characters with motives for murder need to be there just to be red herrings to hid the real murderer. A good mystery will manage to double their roles, perhaps, by also making their stories serve as foils to the main character, or variations on the book's theme.

    In my WIP, I had a character, the incarnation of Death, who was part of the worlds theology/mythology/cosmology but otherwise not in the story. I recently promoted her from a mere personification to a an actual character. This means it no longer suffices to have merely cosmological goals for her, she must have personal goals as well.

    Another character's storyline started out as simply a comic sideline, but I'm trying to raise the stakes and make that into, as you say, a foil, for the other storyline. In this case, a seduction is contrasted with another love story.

  3. Justus:

    "I've eliminated a lot of characters who lack purpose."

    If only I could do that at the office.

    OT: I don't think there's any rule about using both "it's" and "it is" in the same sentence. If there is, it's a dumb rule, it is. Sometimes I want to slow down the speed of a passage, and expanding a contraction is one way to do that.

    Tara Maya:

    It took me a minute to figure out what "frex" meant. I'm old and unhip, you know.

    The Astrid character I'm working on started out as mostly an accessory for the protagonist: someone he could talk about to other people. I have one character who exists merely to supply comic relief, and he's staying that way.

  4. I always find it satisfying to make this sort of recognition. In a way, it's almost like the more you study your own book the easier it is to revise because you see that the answers and solutions to a lot of your problems are more obvious once you understand the book better. I think I was about four years into my book when all of a sudden several of the characters just fell into place for me. I don't know what made the switch, but I had taken a break from the book and when I returned to it, I suddenly felt like I knew my characters better than I did before. As a result, the emotions of the story got much more complicated and required a huge amount of revision, but the book is richer for it.

  5. Davin:

    I am learning a great deal about my book, my story, through this rewrite. I'm having to think about it in ways I hadn't yet, and that's all good. One of my worries, however, is that I'll end up having to change great swaths of plot in the second half of the book because my new understanding of the characters will render meaningless what I've already written. I'm on a deadline, damn it! I also hope that the lessons I'm learning on this book will be applicable to future writing.

  6. I like the name Astrid! I picture her as sort of a geeky seductress with black rimmed glasses and a dark side. :-) Beautiful in a "different" kind of way. That's just how I picture a girl named Astrid. LOL

  7. Very nice post, Scott! I agree that you must know who your characters are. Sometimes I find it helpful to just sit down and write down everything I know about a character, right down to their strangest quirks and habits to freckles in odd places. It all combines to mean something to me in the end. To make them real and reveal their purpose in the world I've placed them in.