Monday, January 17, 2011

Combining Characters

Fiction writers must sometimes combine two characters into one, said BRP editor Helen Ginger in a recent post.

That was such a juicy little aside to her main point that I couldn’t let it rest. Why might an editor suggest you combine characters?

Here’s my take on it:

Characters aren’t really people. Characters represent different ways of looking at things, and we choose them for this reason.

Adopting this perception will take you far towards internalizing the most basic premise of storytelling: Story is conflict.

Events worthy of story inclusion are driven by a protagonist’s motivation to overcome obstacles that stand between him and a deeply desired outcome. Just as the journey from motivation to goal creates your protagonist’s story arc, each of your other main characters must also establish a character arc, by acting from his own motivation toward his own goal.

If your cast of characters is well orchestrated, their desires will intersect with the protagonist’s arc often, in a way that either helps or hinders your protagonist. This creates the kind of relevant conflict that readers love.

How different must your characters be?

Can two characters share a motivation, yet still contribute to the conflict?
Sure. Let’s say two sisters are motivated to dethrone the sexual predator who made them feel powerless as children. Many years later, in order to give herself to the man she loves, our protagonist must make sense of nightmares that always include her sister. Her sister claims to know nothing—because she must keep a shameful secret. While our protagonist has formed the goal to reclaim personal power, her sister has been siphoning power from other young innocents. Plenty of conflict, especially if our protagonist must decide whether to bust her own sister to set herself free.

Can two characters share a goal, yet still contribute to the conflict?
Yes. Two women are vying for positions of power in a company; one, motivated by earning the respect of her beloved father, works diligently; the other, whose father abandoned her when she was an adolescent, is determined to sleep her way to the top. Add that they were best friends as children and you have plenty of conflict.

Editors will see a problem when two characters start to act from the same motivation toward the same goal in the same way. I see this in crime fiction, where a younger cop follows his partner around like a puppy leashed to his mother’s collar. If the younger cop never questions or defies or disobeys, why is he there?

I also see it in novels set in environments the novelist has an issue with, such as politics or Corporate America. The author peoples these worlds with selfish, cookie-cutter automatons. Not only does this reader fail to connect with them, I forget their names and want to put down the book. How much more intriguing the story would be if what looks like a corporate automaton is really a young man trying to make good on a teenage mistake, struggling to be something he’s not to support kids he’s raising alone. He’s more interesting, and I promise I wouldn’t forget his name.

The moral of this post: unless a betrayal is on the horizon, you will not enhance your fiction with yes-men. Unless you are going to dig deep for motivations or goals that differ, you only need one cop who plays by the rules, or one corporate stick-in-the-mud.

So next time you feel that a certain point of view might gain gravitas by adding another character who feels the same way, spend your time more wisely by deepening the point of view of the character you already have. Because later, an editor will probably tell you to combine the characters anyway.

Can two characters act from the same motivation toward the same goal and still contribute relevant conflict? Show me, and tell me why it can work.

Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Formerly a dance critic and arts journalist, she now writes women's fiction and memoir. The first chapter of her memoir, Standoff at Ronnie's Place, modified as a stand-alone essay, has been published online by Mason's Road, the online journal of Fairfield University's MFA program. She blogs about Healing through Writing.

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  1. It worked in "The Defiant Ones." Very well.

  2. Any chance you'd elaborate on that, Debbie, so those of us who don't know this movie can learn from your example?

  3. Interesting post, Kathryn. One I am going to have to save off and read again when I can spend more time digesting it. Those nuances of character you point out are so important, and I usually get it with my central characters, but have not thought about how the rest of the cast needs to have this kind of separateness.

  4. This would definitely help in a manuscript where the author has written in too many characters and their functions overlap.

    I just finished reading "Hold Tight" by Harlan Coben, and I think his story might have been easier to follow if he had combined some characters...for instance his killer (Nash) and the killer's companion (Pietra).

  5. Great post. Sometimes you hate to do away with a character, but if you really analyze it, you can do it without hurting the story - and sometimes you make it tighter and better.

  6. In "The Defiant Ones" Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier play convicts on a Southern chain gang. Both want to escape to get away from the brutality of the guards.

    They do escape, but are still chained together. And they loath each other.

    Lots of conflict and tension even though they both want the same thing for the same reason.

  7. Excellent post! I think the key to avoiding this in the first place is to make sure that each character is fully dimensional and unique, not just in purpose, but in personality (which will change his approach to a problem).


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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