Fiction - Main Characters And How To Choose Them

Posted at 23:51pm on 10th November 2008

Revised and Updated: August, 2010

Last week, in Ten Tips Before You Begin, I wrote about the necessity for you, as an aspiring author, to identify your readers before you begin to write your book. That advice holds true whatever the genre in which you are writing. Today, we’re going to concentrate on writing a novel, and in particular, the importance of identifying all the main characters in your book.

FICTION – MAIN CHARACTERS

This need to identify which of your characters is going to advance the plot of your story is crucial. As I wrote in the last of my August posts The How To Of Creative Writing: Characterisation, characters are not merely travellers on the journey through plot, but are the drivers. Consider the following story, which I have used in previous tutorials.

THE WIFE OF a man from the company of the prophets cried out to Elisha, ‘Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that he revered the Lord. But now his creditor is coming to take my two boys as his slaves.’ Elisha replied to her, ‘How can I help you? Tell me, what do you have in your house?’

‘Your servant has nothing there at all,’ she said, ‘except a little oil.’

Elisha said, ‘Go round and ask all your neighbours for empty jars. Don’t just ask for a few. Then go inside and shut the door behind you and your sons. Pour oil into all the jars, and as each is filled, put it to one side.’

She left him and afterwards shut the door behind her and her sons. They brought the jars to her and she kept pouring. When all the jars were full, she said to her son: ‘Bring me another one.’ But he replied: ‘There is not a jar left.’

Then the oil stopped flowing. She went and told the man of God, and he said:

‘Go, sell the oil and pay your debts. You and your sons can live on what is left.’ NIV

HOW MANY MAIN CHARACTERS COULD THERE BE?

The obvious ones are:

  1. Elisha
  2. The unnamed sons
  3. The Widow

But there are others:

  1. The deceased husband
  2. The prophets
  3. The creditors
  4. The Lord
  5. The neighbours
  6. The people to whom the oil was sold

In theory, the story could be narrated by any one of these characters. Well, perhaps not! It might be difficult, though not impossible, through the mouth of the deceased husband, or the Lord.

ARE ALL THE MAIN CHARACTERS INVOLVED EMOTIONALLY?

When I used this example, The How To Of Creative Writing: Where To Begin, I asked you to identify which of the individuals mentioned could be the main character. I also asked you to identify the theme of the story, which is trust. Can you see that this theme can only be conveyed effectively through the first three characters? None of the others would have experienced the need to trust, nor the means by which to trust. The widow, her sons, and the prophet Elisha, are the only ones who were emotionally involved. And the role of a narrator is to involve the reader in a vicarious sense of living through these emotions.

IMPORTANCE OF THE NARRATOR

On these grounds, the only one whose journey has taken her through the whole gamut of emotions -

  • from despair (no husband, two dependents, no income, debt)
  • through a hint of hope (going to Elisha)
  • obedience (carrying out his instructions)
  • doubt and scepticism (no more jars left)
  • to trust and triumph (enough to pay off debts and provide for the future)

- is the widow. She, supremely, provides all the emotion-charged drama and conflict to give the plot its impetus and to make it a compelling read. She is the one person who has been present in every twist and turn, every scene of the story. She, crucially, is its main character. And as narrator in the story, she carries it forward.

NARRATOR OBSERVER

Having said that, there are instances in literature where the narrator has been an observer. An outsider can ‘pronounce’ on the appropriateness (or not) of another character’s reactions. Most crime fiction follows this pattern to some extent, in that the detective has not been party to the crime and must, therefore, detect the motives behind it.

However, if you were to use an observer narrator in this story, much of it would end up as reportage. Imagine the story through the eyes of, say, the creditors. What a different tale there would be to tell. I doubt that there would have been a good relationship between them and the widow, so it’s most unlikely that she, or her sons, would have confided in them. And this would severely restrict their knowledge and understanding of what was occurring. Even if they had heard, indirectly, about Elisha’s input, they may well have been quite sceptical about what this young widow was about, and the likelihood of the debt owing to them being repaid.

Told by the neighbours, there may have been considerably more sympathy. They, after all, were involved by the widow, and have seen her putting obedience into action. Even so, they may not have witnessed her initial distress; her plea to Elisha and his response; nor what one assumes must have been a considerable amount of time in filling the jars with oil (given that the money raised cleared her debts and left her enough for the future). Much of their telling of the story could, therefore, only be hearsay: reportage. Only when they were directly involved with the widow, could we possibly have ‘heard’ her voice on the page. Her emotions, though (which most human beings are pretty good at hiding or faking) would be filtered through the eyes of the neighbours.

SUMMARY

  • Characters drive plot, so the main characters need to be chosen with care
  • Decide which, of all the characters in your story, is the most emotionally involved
  • Is he / she the one who is making the journey which conveys the theme?

NEXT TIME

This post is one of a series. For Part 3 see How To Hook Your Reader: Starting Your Story. Alternatively, the entire 6 part series may be found - with many other similar articles - under: CREATIVE WRITING TECHNIQUES.

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