Each and every character in a story has a single purpose for the storyteller - and that is their role or agency vis a vis the moral development of the protagonist, hero or heroine, the subject of your novel. They either assist or hinder.
There are filler characters, the door holders, and bag carriers, the petrol pump attendants, and these too may have something to add, but you need to concern yourself with the team first and foremost. Some 3-15 players.
Wherever you are in your novel, you should be looking at the crucible - the hell Sartre might have dubbed it or heaven - that is the nexus of relationships. What people want from your main player and what he or she wants from them. The relationships - the push and pull of their reciprocal wants and needs - will range from highly negative and reversing (antagonist) to assistance, affection, love and self-sacrifice (the friend or lover).
So you'll be playing these out in your story through conflict and clarification - questions posed by the other characters for your main player to answer - and assaults on their values or beliefs along with reassurance. Obviously, it's conflict which contains the most energy to propel your main character faster.
"Certain characteristics of the protagonist and antagonist are revealed often only through relationships with each other or with circumstances (either external or internal) and events played out in action and reaction. Under the pressure of situations, conflicts, clashes of will or story tension, the ideas that lie behind a story’s themes cease to be merely abstract and become people actually doing things to each other or reacting to the action. As has been already explained, film dialogue is best when it has an immediate purpose and produces visible reactions in others. This is the essence of drama. Because character is not a static quality that belongs to a specific figure, rather than thinking of individual characters in the world it is far more useful for the writer to consider the notion of character-in-action-and-reaction. A story’s energy comes from the degree to which its characters are warring elements, complementary aspects that illuminate each other by contrast and conflict. The only practical reason for a particular character’s existence, in fact, is to interact with other characters." Alexander Mackendrick, On Film Making.
Particularly useful if you're writing a whodunnit to consider the 'mute' character who is present but seems to offer neither conflict nor assistance. This passive beast, appearing quite often in the story, without apparent agency, can be your secret agent, your ticking bomb. Because they're there, but don't seem to be doing anything in terms of your story, your reader won't be able to do the usual mathematics of story in which they've been trained since a child, and 2 + 2 won't' be coming up with 4, so you've created a blind spot, a little piece of magic taking their eye off the ball. Nice one!
Once you've got your story up and running, you'll be able to flesh out the network of relationships and lean on that for refining your storytelling in each and every scene by remembering what each character wants. So that in any conversation or activity, they're after their own fulfilment, acting with the same wholeness people do in life. This is tricky at the beginning of a first draft when you're writing a little bit to work these things out, but the sooner you start to sketch it out, the more integrity your story will have.
The Comic Element.
In comedies, the joker of the pack has an absurd lack of requirements of others, think 'Being There' by Kozinski, or Forrest Gump, or Baldrick in Blackadder, they have a one-way relationship to others, which is lacking in complex wants and needs.
The Network of Relationships
Alexander Mackendrick's wonderful book On Film-making gives an example of Graham Greene at work on turning his short story into the movie The Third Man. (The article is attached as a download in the lesson pack for Character Mapping in The Ninety Day Novel Course, one of our online creative writing courses. In that lesson, you will also find my own example of a network of active relationships and how to prepare your own.)
Here's the character map Mackendrick prepared for The Third Man.
Graham Greene's descriptions of the cast as individuals was wholly concerned with their relationships - what they want from each other - and not interested in physical descriptions whatsoever.
Interestingly, in my favourite Greene novels, the sentimental End of the Affair and The Heart of the Matter, God is a character with which Catherine and Scobie have very real relationships depicted by what they want from Him and He wants from them!
I rarely offer physical descriptions of my main players, it's too trivialising and inimical to the purpose of this wonderful medium in which souls are almost unembodied offering us an immersive experience of entertainment. Instead, many good authors suggest from the responses of others to their characters what effect their physical appearance causes. This is beautifully and knowingly handled by Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, where Jay Gatsby means different things to different people, but Daisy we know is beautiful because of the reactions she elicits and Daisy offers a masterclass in 'being beautiful' when she works hard to cause reaction by lowering her 'low' and 'thrilling' voice to make people come closer to hear her.
Check into The Ninety Day Novel Course and enjoy the lesson pack on Day 5 to find out how to create your character network.
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