Jeanne Cavelos is the director of the Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust. She was a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, where she worked for eight years, editing the fantasy/science fiction program, the Abyss horror line, and other fiction and nonfiction. Jeanne is also the bestselling author of seven books and numerous short stories and articles. She has won the World Fantasy Award and twice been nominated for the Stoker Award.
Create a protagonist. Add an antagonist. Toss in a sidekick or minion, or if you’re writing a novel, perhaps a whole array of characters. But then what do you do with them? How do you incorporate each character into the story so he has a powerful impact on plot, raises intense suspense, and generates strong emotions?
One very useful tool to help you maximize the impact of each character on the story is to consider each character’s type. The book The Dramatic Writer’s Companion: Tools to Develop Characters, Cause Scenes, and Build Stories by Will Dunne introduces different character types, such as the close powerful ally, the close weak ally, the distant powerful ally, the distant weak ally, the close powerful adversary, the distant powerful adversary, the close weak adversary, and the distant weak adversary. While Dunne identifies other fascinating types, we’ll focus on these in this article.
At first, these categories may seem fairly obvious. But as I thought about them, I realized how much power they could bring to a story if one considers what type of character would best serve the story at a particular point. For example, if your protagonist starts out weak, like Harry Potter, then a close powerful adversary should quickly destroy him, if your story is to be believable. Instead, Harry needs a close weak adversary that he has at least a chance of beating, such as Draco Malfoy, so we feel suspense and concern. If Harry has nearby allies, then they should be close weak allies. If they are strong, they’d just end up saving him over and over, which would minimize suspense and leave Harry with nothing to do, making him a very weak protagonist we don’t care much about. Harry might also have distant powerful allies, such as Sirius Black, who’d like to help him but aren’t available to do so. Such characters can create great suspense as the protagonist struggles to reach the distant ally—can he reach help in time? —or the ally tries to reach him.
That last example reveals the power of changing one or both of the key variables we’re discussing here: distance and level of power. The powerful ally can become weak. The nearby ally can be taken to a distant place or killed. The powerful, distant adversary can approach. The weak adversary can grow stronger. In the Harry Potter books, Voldemort grows closer and more powerful over the series, increasing suspense and raising the stakes of the plot. In the Star Trek (original series) episode “The Deadly Years,” Kirk and his powerful allies Spock and McCoy all undergo premature, rapid aging, making them all grow weaker and weaker as Romulan adversaries approach, making us more and more concerned. You can even think of some objects as characters. The U.S.S. Enterprise is Kirk’s most powerful ally. In fact, it is so powerful, writers found they often had to send the ship halfway across the galaxy so Kirk, left on the planet, could be in jeopardy. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the Enterprise is crippled by Khan, not only reducing Kirk’s chance of success as this powerful ally becomes weak, but preventing Kirk from warping away from trouble, trapping the protagonist and antagonist in close contact. All of these changes can carry great suspense and emotion.
The most powerful moments in a story can occur with changes in the third variable, when an ally becomes an adversary, or an adversary becomes an ally. A very emotional moment in Braveheart occurs when the protagonist, William Wallace, discovers the ally he believed would be the savior of Scotland, Robert the Bruce, has become an adversary and betrayed him and Scotland. In Star Wars Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader turns from adversary to ally, killing the emperor and sacrificing himself to save Luke Skywalker. The recent film The Imitation Game creates a great, uplifting moment when protagonist Alan Turing’s subordinates, who have all been his adversaries, turn to allies and commit to quitting their jobs if Alan is fired. When done well, such developments create exciting turning points in the plot and pack a strong emotional punch.
So if you find yourself uncertain about how to make the most of a particular character in your story, consider what type he is and whether changes in any of the three variables might help create a stronger plot, greater suspense, and more intense emotion. A dynamic, engaging story involves more than an interesting cast of characters; it involves characters who serve the needs of the story and who change in ways that significantly alter the plot’s possibilities and threats. Such changes make us thrill at Luke Skywalker’s breakthrough in power as he fires the critical shot to destroy the Death Star; they make us despair in A Game of Thrones at Ned Stark’s loss of power when he resigns his post as Hand of the King and again when the king dies. And such changes can lead us to breathlessly turn the pages as your protagonist races to reach those distant allies before the increasing threat overtakes her.