Selecting characters

In my previous post, I said that you have to select characters ruthlessly to keep from jamming up storytelling and explanation. How do you choose characters, people, and names to include?

“Characters” are people who are developed enough so that readers experience them as real. “People” remain flat and undeveloped; they’re bit players or part of the scenery. “Names” often appear as attributions. In terms of jamming up the piece, place names also count.

First of all, you include characters because readers need them to understand what you’re talking about. The cast would include the main actors in an action, plus minor players required for explanation.

Some people, usually commentators, appear in a piece because they deliver a key quote, although they don’t participate in the action. We try to keep their Stylebook requirements light. And you should always ask yourself if you really need that quote.

A lot of stories get cluttered because writers believe they have to quote everybody they talk with, both as a courtesy to the sources and to show their editors they reported deeply. You don’t owe sources a mention, and smart editors judge stories by quality, not quantity of phone calls.

Sometimes you include a character or quote somebody for purely political reasons. You massage them by naming them. For example, a smart city hall reporter will mention the mayor and every member of the city council at least once a week. Keep ‘em short.

You don’t include characters because you like them, or because they deliver a delicious quote, which actually has nothing to do with what you’re writing about, but you like it. That’s a good test of rigor: can you chop a great but irrelevant quote and the person who said it?

It helps to discard characters and people and names before you type. Once you’ve put them in, you’re less likely to take them out.

[Got a test for who’s in and who’s out?]

Published in: on September 15, 2009 at 6:37 pm  Leave a Comment  

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