One of the writing tips I’ve heard for making stories stronger is to combine characters. Theoretically, combining characters cuts down the number of supporting characters (thus making the cast easier to remember) and makes for a stronger single character (by bringing in conflicting, but often interesting behaviors).
When I was working on Distant Horizon, a YA science fiction novel I’m co-authoring with my husband, Isaac, a suggestion we got from one of our beta-readers was to combine two characters who both played the role of a mentor. Ultimately I turned down the idea, because each character had conflicting backstories that I wanted to be able to bring in later (though that isn’t technically a good excuse–somewhere I read a similar train of thought about a Wheel of Time character, but I can’t remember which article that was).
However, by realizing how similar the two characters were, I realized how important it was to differentiate between them if I chose not to combine them.
Let’s take a quick look at these two characters, Pops and Jim, from Distant Horizon.
Pops is the main character’s grandfather, though she knows him for the same length of time as Jim. He has the wisdom of experience from working with the people he now fights, and he wants to protect the main character from those people.
Jim, on the other hand, is older than Pops, and he’s never worked with the bad guys. He knows the time from before the bad guys took over, and thus, he took on the role of the rebel’s historian.
Both characters are mentor figures, and in my earlier drafts, had a tendency to convey repetitive information.
I needed to determine what made each separate character crucial to the plot, and why I wanted them to be different characters.
One reason was their respective eras.
Pops grew up during a time when the bad guys had almost full control of their territories, but their reign was still uncertain. They were no longer seen as the bad guys, and thus, Pops took part in helping their agenda. He grew up familiar with the earlier uncertainty where the lack of jobs and money were a problem, and he understood the promise of the coming “Community ideals.” But in his work he’s seen the darker side of the Community, and while he still values the ideals, he no longer supports the bad guys. While with them, he trained as a scientist who studied powers, and so he is the resident expert.
As for Jim, he grew up in the age of superheroes (relatively similar to our world, but with powers). He saw the fall of the Super Bureau, and the fall of the free world. He is familiar with the concept of democracy, various religions (which were largely wiped out by the bad guys) and freedom. He was there to watch the world spiraling out of control, and he was there at the founding of the rebels’ group. He’s seen the change of eras. Paralyzed from the waist-down in his early days, he no longer fights direct battles, but he provides useful information regarding the past as it was… and how the bad guys have covered up that past with lies. He is the only surviving member of the Super Bureau.
Each character has several similarities. But they are also different. When the main character wants information regarding how the bad guys act from within their ranks, she should go to Pops. When she needs more information on powers, she should go to Pops. When she wants comfort in the Community ideals she believed in, she should go to Pops.
But when she wants to know why this rebel group behaves as they do, she needs to go to Jim. Only he can give her the dynamics that neither she, nor Pops, can fully understand. When she wants information on the world as it was, and might be yet again, or answers that don’t involve the Community’s dark secrets, she needs to go to Jim. He has a different perspective than Pops, and unlike Pops, who is jaded from the world he’s seen, Jim still has some lingering hope within the sadness of everything he’s lost, in part because of how he was raised.
Now, would it be possible to combine these characters? Probably. The ages might change. The new character might have been a superhero trained in the science of powers who worked for the bad guys for a while, then quit for reasons that are revealed in the story. The new character would still be a mentor, but due to the change in backstory, how they see the world–and how others see them–would be different.
It’s not quite what Isaac and I were going for. There’s a certain symbolism we’re hoping to achieve through the two characters, and they each have different outlooks on life. Maybe the story would have been stronger if they were merged. Maybe it wouldn’t.
For now, I’m planning to keep them separate. But having considered merging them helped me to consider what made them stronger separately.
I hope you enjoyed this post, and next time, I’ll be talking about a couple characters I’m considering combining in The Shadow War. 🙂
Have you considered combining any of your characters? Why or why not?
EDIT: You can read the second part of this post here.
4 responses to “Thoughts on Writing – Combining Characters Part 1”
I can think of plenty of times that I have gotten two characters confused in popular fiction, not just novels I’m beta reading for. It makes you pause when your reading (sometimes even through out the book). If it were me, I would just make sure they have different voices/chemistry with the protagonist/antagonist. Sometimes the way two characters interact can show the greatest differences. There are many flavors of mentors especially with different backgrounds and ages. 🙂
True. I agree with your point of paying attention to how the characters interact. In this particular case, the main character warms up to Jim faster because she feels like Pops is hiding something from her.
That’s something I’ll keep in mind when I do my final proofread, and for current works in progress.
I’ve also noticed that I sometimes have a hard time remembering who is who, especially if there’s a large cast and they have similar roles. But it’s even more fun if there’s a pair of characters who share a first-person point of view, but their voice/thought process is really similar. Times like those I have to check the chapter headings to see who is talking. It can be done well, but it can also be difficult.
Thanks for your input! 😀
I’ve had some really fun times reading characters that share view points. Especially at a crucial point in a story. It makes it very exciting at times. Especially if it’s a supporting character that you really like or are crushing over. I love that. 🙂
It sounds to me like you have a handle on these characters and they sound like they have very different things to contribute. They don’t sound too similar from what I know of it. Then again, I haven’t read your manuscript.
But either way, a writer that takes the time to think about these things in depth really cares about their readers and I’m a big fan of that!
I try to think of these things in depth (and Isaac does, too. He often points out when I don’t). But I’m glad they sound like they have very different roles now. Hopefully that will come through in the book, too. 🙂