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Orchestrating characters

In a recent post about combining characters I suggested that one's characters should be well orchestrated. I thought that term was worthy of further exploration because so many of my clients have trouble figuring out what conflict is relevant to their stories. It all starts with your cast of characters: if you've orchestrated them well, their intersecting character arcs will have an inherent relevance to the protagonist’s arc.

In the novel I’m now shopping around, Dance of the Fallen Sparrow, my protagonist, Penelope Sparrow, is a dancer who is saved from the deadly consequences of a 14-story fall by the same "sturdy thighs" and "mambo hips" that have derailed her dance career. She must now transcend her body image issues and fully embrace her individuality if she is to make the most of this extraordinary second chance to make her mark in the dance world.

The dancer is cued; let the orchestration begin.

Penelope lands on the car of ground-floor bakery owner Marty Kandelbaum, who happens to be a bit of an an armchair philosopher. Before parking his car early one morning he had been praying for a sign that love will once again enter his life...

Where Penelope’s weak spirit is housed in an unstoppable body, her hospital roommate, Angela Reed, has a huge spirit trapped in a body succumbing to cystic fibrosis. Perhaps Angela is meant for one last mission while still on earth...

Out of work and barely moving, Penelope must rely on help from the obese mother from whom she’s been estranged. She is forced to face self-destructive behaviors she'd rather ignore...

While cheering on her former star student, Penelope's dance mentor, Bebe Browning, has been hiding a lifelong secret about her own body...

The local dance critic, Margaret MacArthur, has her own reasons for wanting in on Penelope’s survival story...

See what I mean about orchestration? These people have been brought together to butt heads. With Penelope, yes, but also with one another.

Let’s consider some new characters for my story.

Let’s say I wanted Penelope to awaken in a more peaceable kingdom. Her hospital roommate is not only a recovered anorexic but is now a yogi who carries the keys to universal wisdom. Oops—this isn’t a novel any more, it’s a self-help book.

Let’s try again.

Let’s say I wanted Penelope to have an insider buddy—Natasha, a dancer who grew up in Penelope’s world, and understands Penelope’s every longing and perfectionist tendency. Oops—if she understands that much, they don’t really need to talk, do they. And wrapping their relationship in all that understanding, she’ll provide no pressure for Penelope to change.

I don’t need this extra character at all. Only varying points of view can drive conflict in the story.

But what if Natasha is so motivated to keep Penelope from changing, you might argue, that she impedes the growth arc Penelope is now determined to pursue?

Ah... Now, you're thinking like a novelist!

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. A great follow-up to yesterday's post, Kathryn. When you give the concrete examples this makes so much sense.


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