Characterisation #1: The Company You Keep.


February 23, 2012 by jcfarnham

Tell me what company you keep and I’ll tell you what you are.”
– Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
The above quote has never meant more to me than when applied to the subject of characterisation. Though I doubt that this was quite what Miguel was driving at, to me there is nothing more important when creating deep, three dimensional protagonists (and indeed secondary characters) than looking carefully at the people you surround them with.
Even the kindest, most boy scout protagonists are going to seem average, perhaps even uncaring without adversity to over come. It should go without saying that this doesn’t have to be a good versus evil situation, and indeed I’m not talking about giving every character an antagonist – though in away that’s something to think about and I hope to touch upon later.
In the past I’ve heard this kind of oppositional character called a foil. More often than not in my experience slinging this word around can get creative types a teensy bit up in arms. I am suggesting everyone should at least consider creating subtle foils for their characters (maybe the foil doesn’t even have to be a living being. A concept, or an object instead even?)What I’m not suggesting is creating a whole cast of characters who have nothing to do other than be horrible so your protagonist can look good. This is perhaps the worst thing you could do. There’s nothing worse than pointless character. So, even a foil should be three dimensional.
There is a fine line to be found between doing it well and stuffing your stories with things that just won’t work.
In my own writing (specifically the first planned arc of Blitz) I had a character, a bounty hunter, whose sole job seemed to be playing devil’s advocate. As a character who could have had a huge wealth of living behind him and stories one could “really” get one’s teeth into, it was such a crying shame that I was misusing him. Even though he was perfect for the job of foil to Myra’s coming-of-age mechanic type, he was frankly dead meat, and a waste of space. I was using him as a cheap trick, a sympathy vote at best.
I fully intend to recycle the Mack character in the next couple of story lines in Blitz (and yes I’m hesitant to say books …), but only when he has a place of his own.
The following is my main piece of advice. If you take nothing else from this post, remember this. Even a character who’s job it is to make your protagonist[s] look good needs to be counted as a full, well rounded character in their own right.
The fact is Mack’s presence would have worked as I had intended but only in the right circumstances. Most importantly he needed to be part of a cast of characters that not only metaphorically “worked” for Myra but also “worked” for him. A good cast, and good characterisation by extension, should slot into place just so. When he clicks, he’ll click. If you ever find yourself with a character that could be wonderful, but simply isn’t working, do him or her a favour and cut him from your manuscript. Don’t be afraid and most importantly don’t be disheartened. They may well work somewhere else. They quite simply deserve the right and best “circumstances”. 
I’ll leave you with an example of a book where this concept fell into place for me, and that book is Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. When the protagonist, Ender Wiggin, enters Battle School for the first time Orson immediately surrounds the young boy with people who will both make his life as terrible as it can get and raise him from the ashes. Each member of the supporting cast “teaches” Ender something and through them allow him to become the legendary hero people hope he will be.
But not one character is misplaced in that book. Neither do they hang around longer than needed. They come on, do what they need to do and leave. Yet not once did I find myself thinking that these characters were anything less than complete. Just as they bring about change in Ender, Ender brings about change in them (for better or for worse). 
Just go read it. You’ll hopefully see what I mean.

One thought on “Characterisation #1: The Company You Keep.

  1. Aderyn Wood says:

    I agree, no matter how 'minor' the character they need to appear as rounded, three dimensional as you say. I'm currently reading George R.R. Martin's 'A Song of Ice and Fire' series. In the first book, 'Game of Thrones' one of my favorite characters was a minor character – Syrio. Martin really put a lot of personality into this guy.

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