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Column Nine: Characters as Tools and Homonyms

By Dave Goetsch

Half of the columns in this series have dealt with characters. As much as you may feel we’ve discussed, we’ve barely scratched the surface of the subject. Please attend workshops, take classes, and read all you can about character and character development.

I’ve spent most of our time on defining specific kinds of characters; now let’s sort them out and see how these types can be used as tools in the creative process. We’re not talking about how to develop, plump out, or breathe life into a character. We’ll examine how to use these specific character types to show rather than tell readers your story.
Things you’ve heard many times, but can never hear too often:
• Characters are one of the four basic elements of fiction. The other three are theme, setting, and plot.
• Characters are the individuals who act out or tell your story.
• A writer develops his/her characters by providing situations where characters speak, act, react, and interact with other characters.
• There are major and minor characters.
• There are central characters and supporting characters.
• Characters may change (dynamic) or remain the same (static) during the course of the story.
• Characters may have complex (round) or simple (flat) personalities.

Knowing the above information is one thing, but learning how to effectively use this knowledge as tools for your writing is another. Let’s look at two specific examples of how characters strengthen your writing.

Characters support and reinforce the theme of the story. “Haste Makes Waste” is a common message. Jane and Sally will act out this theme. Jane (protagonist) wants to become a successful business woman who inspires others to lead a healthy lifestyle because her parents died from health-related issues. She dives in feet first. She leases a property in an affluent suburb, fills the shelves with weight reduction and muscle-building products, hires well-trained instructors, and she furnishes her studio with state-of-the-art equipment. Jane advertises and sends out flyers promising results in thirty days. In six months, not only has she lost customers, but she has depleted her start-up funds and accumulated debt.

Sally is our foil. She has been overweight since childhood and as a result has low self-esteem. In a parallel plot, she will paint the other side of the theme. She, too, wants to be successful in helping herself and others lead healthier lives. She goes to local libraries and offers classes. Each session begins with a walk followed by light weight-lifting, and talks about nutrition and emotional well-being. Within six months, because of word-of-mouth and positive results from her classes, Sally rents a larger space at the local community center. In the resolution of the story, Jane sees the “error” of her ways and adopts Sally’s business model and achieves her want.

Here we have our protagonist’s journey highlighted by a foil’s journey. Jane is dynamic because she changes her methods after watching Sally’s success. Sally is a static character because she had the right idea at the get-go and remained that way. Notice, it isn’t necessarily bad to be a static character. Sally serves two important roles. First, her plot has proven the theme. Second, she has reflected the mirror image of Jane’s personality, thus sharpening Jane’s poor choices. Both characters are round because of the issues and the complexities in their backgrounds that motivate them to pursue their goals.

Let’s look at a second example of how a character, no matter how small the role, can be key to plot advancement. Remember Hannah? She will be a very minor character in a mystery we’re writing. She speaks not a word, never changes, and we know only this one defining trait about her: Hannah is obsessive-compulsive and will furnish a major clue to help a clever detective narrow the time of death of a murder. Hannah brings her boss the daily schedule at 8:00 a.m. each morning, even though the boss arrives much earlier. Hannah never fails to do this. When the first client arrives at 8:45 a.m., he discovers her boss’s bloody body at her desk. Our detective sees the schedule with handwritten notes and places the crime within a forty-five-minute window because he knows of Hannah’s single defining trait. This may be Hannah’s only job, but she is the key to paving the road to discovering the possible suspects for the detective to investigate.

Our homonyms are “hear” and “here.”
Hear – to perceive by the ear
ex: Did you hear the car crash?
Here – in this place
ex: Place the chair here.

Step Nine: Using one of your stories, identify what functions minor characters are serving.

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