Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Writer's Wednesday:Character hierarchy and why it is important

PHS editor and Harlequin Historical author Michelle Styles discusses the hierarchy of characters and why an author should pay attention to it!

There is  a hierarchy of characters in a book. Some like the main characters are very well drawn. Other minor characters may or may not be well drawn. It depends on if the author intends to use a minor character as a major character in another story. Sometimes, characters demand this but then the author discovers what she thought she knew about them isn’t necessarily accurate. Using former minor characters as major ones can be fraught with peril as I have learnt as the back story etc might not be adequate. One way around this is what Georgette Heyer did which was to write *new* characters who had many of the traits of the old secondaries. For example the hero of These Old Shades was a take on the villain in The Black Moth. They are to all intents and purposes the same character but Heyer gave them slightly different names. This allowed her to juggle the back story a bit.
 After minor characters, there are place-holding  and walk-on characters. Every good author, like every good director should know how to make walk-ons and place-holders vanish. Another way to put it is how to create the illusion of a crowd.   But sometimes it can be unclear who are the leads and who are the minor characters. This is particularly the case in the first  chapter of a book. In the beginning, the reader considers all characters to be equal. If you spend time on a character in the first scene, the reader expects that character to be important in some way to the story, even if they are not the lead. Thus if you name check a lot of characters in the first scene, it may prove confusing to the reader. After the first few scenes, the reader has begun to figure out which characters are important or not and the hierarchy becomes  more established.
There are ways to tell who the lead characters are –  lead characters make choices rather than have choices made for them (ie they are proactive) and they command the action of the story. The focus of the story is on the lead characters.  The lead characters command the reader’s sympathy (ie the reader cares about what is going to happen to them) They keep reappearing (they don’t do a cameo in their own story). Finally a lead character will often (but not always have a point of view). 

 If you find that a minor character is starting to take over, you can adjust the volume of that character. There are many reasons why a reader might love a character and some of these are out of the author’s control (ie the character appears to resemble them) but the author can make sure that  the reader does know who the lead characters are.

Michelle Styles writes warm, witty, and intimate historical romance for Harlequin. Her next book Saved by the Viking Warrior is published on 19 August 2014.  You can learn more about Michelle and her books on 

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