Bruce Dern–the actor who’ll forever be known for shooting John Wayne in the back in The Cowboys, poor guy. I read an interview with him in American Cowboy, and he said something that struck a chord with me as an author. He’s talking about the different directors he has worked under, calling them geniuses:
there isn’t a moment on set when you can’t approach them on a very personal level — the behind-the-camera people, as well as in-front-of-the-camera people — and ask, “What is my contribution to this particular shot?” And they will tell you exactly. They have the ability to let everybody on the set know that they have a position on the team.
The directors ought to be able to tell everyone what their contribution is as easily as the writers–and the writers should definitely know. Not just the main characters, but the secondary characters should have a purpose in every “shot” they appear in.
Characters have different roles in the story:
- The protagonist seeks a goal
- The antagonist strives to prevent the protagonist from reaching the goal
- The mentor guides the protagonist along his/her way
- Allies and enemies help or hinder
- The diversion character provides red herrings or seeks to make the protagonist change his goal
Other characters have different roles–and a good source to discover what other kinds of characters are is Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.
After you’ve written that messy first draft and you’re sitting down to start your edits, ask yourself what your characters are doing to:
- advance the plot or subplot
- add to the conflict and tension
- provide insight into their personalities
- fulfill their roles in the story
Each of your characters should have a contribution in the particular “shot” in which they appear. Be sure you know what it is.