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I sat in the coffee shop this morning looking around at the regulars and thinking of them as characters in a story. There’s the older man, white-haired, neatly dressed who always reads the national newspaper, the middle aged man in a wheelchair, who tries to play Joe Cool with the baristas, and the baristas who smile and play along with him.

They all have the basics of being useful characters in a story, but it’s not likely I’ll use them. Take the older man. He might be used as, say, the father of a single mom, the husband of a housebound woman, the supposedly-retired company owner who still pulls the strings in the company. In my imagination I could make of him whatever I wanted.

But just because he has the right general description, it doesn’t mean he’s right for the part. When you are casting director for your story you need to get it exactly right. Near enough won’t do, even if it is only a bit part..

If you are writing a story about a single mom and the plot requires that she have a dad you need to look at the emotional component. How does each one feel about the other? What is the back story between them? The dad may just have a tiny part in the story but you still need to get the emotional connection precisely correct. If he just walks on and says his lines and the reader gets no hint of an emotional connection all you have is a two-dimensional cardboard character. He isn’t earning his keep.

If your character isn’t earning his keep you might as well get rid of him and simplify your story. By earning his keep, I mean that he enriches the tale by adding another dimension. He might illuminate some aspect of his daughter’s character. He might reveal her to be presenting a false front, he might earn sympathy for a daughter who is not, apparently, a sympathetic character.

Perhaps all he has to say is something like, “I won’t be home for supper” but that elicits a response in her. Resignation (‘He’s drinking again’), joy (‘Thank goodness I’ll finally get a meal alone with my kid’),  suspicion (‘So where WILL you be?’), anger (‘How dare you leave mom and I alone again”) – the possibilities are many. His one comment carries the plot forward and deepens it.

His presence and his few words enhance the emotional tone of the story. You can’t just finger the guy from the coffee shop for the part, you have to build him carefully, from scratch, to play the part exactly right.

In the world of TV commercials, sometimes it takes a day to cast a part in a 30-second ad spot. Don’t give your characters any less consideration.

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