Are Your Characters People or Placeholders?

So I had something I felt as though I wanted to share, and I decided that I would give Medium a shot rather than going the traditional route of using my existing blog. One of my favorite things about medium is that it’s all about the words, about what people have to share, and all the usual clutter falls by the wayside.

So, as you may have guessed, my thought for today is about characters and placeholders. After exhausting myself with the marketing efforts on my first book, The Fifth Vertex, I decided to sit down and have a look at Act I of my second book, the name of which is still temporarily a secret.

I read it over and something felt off to me, so I started hitting my story with “What if…” scenarios. I removed one of my characters and the story fell apart (that’s a good sign), but it was then that I realized that the character was all wrong — it was a placeholder, not a person.

Authors need to get their characters from one place to the next in order to advance the story. People in the story need to discover things, confront and overcome conflict. Sometimes they do so through the aid of other people in the story. A trap we writers fall into is fabricating characters that serve the needs of the story, but they are shallow, diaphanous things that merely serve to steer our people where we want them to go.

Take the classic example of the mentor. In a hero’s journey type story, you almost always see a mentor, a character who, through something that is hopefully exciting and interesting to read, metes out knowledge and tidbits of information that give the protagonist what he or she needs to advance on their journey. Gandalf is a classic mentor, as is the druid from the Terry Brooks classic Shannara series.

But what of the mentor? Is he a person or a placeholder? This is a mistake that is too easy to make. I discovered in my own story that I had an empty character that did nothing but dispense the knowledge necessary for my protagonist to advance. Ask yourself this question: Could this be a real person, or is this character little more than a dispenser of “proceed to the next scene” tickets?

So, I ripped out my mentor, took him completely out of the story. I then took a step back and created a personality, a person, someone that had a childhood, a history, conflicts, goals, dreams, flaws, and the kinds of qualities that reflect a true person rather than a facade.

I then re-wrote all of the chapters (no small amount of work) in which the original mentor character dispensed knowledge and changed them so that, as a natural course of this person being who they are, the protagonist got the information necessary to advance. But, more importantly, the interactions with this person were now real, tangible, credible, and enriched the story.

I’ve long said to my friends and colleagues that if you, the reader, can see the invisible hand of the author moving the pieces on the chess board, then the author has failed. This usually happens because information has come too easily to a character, or a character has made a decision that doesn’t quite fit with their personality.

A great story comes to a conclusion as a natural progression of decisions and actions that are believable within the context of the world and the people populating it. You risk harming that great story when you drop paper cutouts of people into the story to move your chess pieces rather than creating real people to inhabit your worlds.

The prospect of having to re-write all those chapters was daunting, but I am thoroughly pleased with the result and, more importantly, as a result of enriching the people in Act I, I have a ton of fantastic ideas for the rest of the book that would not have occurred to me had I just left things at “good enough”.

Don’t fear the re-write. Always question your own work. Take a “what if…” trip and see what would happen if you replaced one of your story elements with something else. Explore!