Who’s On First – A Character System for Variety in Scenes

Are you using all your story? All the characters, all the possibilities and combinations that a tale has ready to unleash?

On the one hand, it’s a lifelong study—we writers try to make every book dig deeper or find a new angle on what “people in conflict” can come up with. On the other, even when the story’s starting to fall into place, there’s always the fear that some of the pieces will miss their turns in the spotlight. It’s almost inevitable: by the time we understand the story enough to get caught up in the best parts’ synergy, there always seems to be a valuable part of the picture that our favorites folks and plot twists start rushing the story on past. What would have been pretty cool stuff gets left by the written roadside.

Last week I promised a checklist, a quick way to look at the material in a story to watch if the scenes have the full variety that they could. So:


Step One: Varied Whos and Whys

What’s the main material a story has to work with? Characters.

What are characters made of? Goals.

I’ve blogged about that rule before—that most of a story is rooted in the different, conflicting drives that its people have. A classic hero needs a villain, a villain needs a reason to attack the hero or someone the hero will defend, and then each of those have their own motives and more characters attached to them. The more we know the variety within that, the better we can use it.

Say, even on a literal “Tarzan test” of being sure a hero is fighting different animals:

  • a lion’s a fierce foe, and it might also actually be there to eat someone, so it’ll keep prowling around until Tarzan stops it
  • a rhino’s not only bigger and clumsier, it just wants to be left alone—maybe a tougher fight but an easier one to break off from
  • or, one of the humans Tarzan’s trying to defend might have blundered into their danger, while another might turn out to be a poacher who’s come looking for trouble…

That’s the simple, one-goal look at characters; most usually have more than that, at least once the story begins prying their motives apart. The brothers on Supernatural are both pushing to save the world, but Dean’s always willing to break off the fight if it’s going to cost him Sam, and Sam can get tired of being “babied” that way. And “goal” doesn’t cover all the possibilities for conflict, if someone also has issues like a hot temper (on that show it would be both brothers) or a blind faith in a third character (sooo many candidates…).

A bonus opportunity is to contrast the goal with the character himself—meaning, with what we’d expect a person like that to be. Not just giving someone a strong arc but starting them in a position that doesn’t seem to fit, like I began The High Road with Angie’s own mother Kate having abandoned her daughter and is first seen working against her. It’s a way to imbed an extra layer of contrast in a concept and tease how much backstory has already reshaped them.

It’s that list of characters and goals that the story’s built from. The real trick is to line them up in contrast with each other.


Step Two: Varying them When

Here’s where the rubber meets the road, or the fingers hit the keyboard.

Are all those marvelous pieces of conflict actually being used? In the simple checklist sense, that means, is there a variety between scenes that are focused on:

  • the lead character
  • the most distinct supporting character (and the others)
  • whatever side character the plot wants to spend a moment with
  • the antagonist

Neglect the first point for too many scenes and you don’t have a story. Skimp on the second and the story misses much of its depth, all the other dimensions of what’s at its center. Don’t go into the third now and then, and the tale stays a bit narrow, when you could be using those people to do justice to one more side of what your hero’s dealing with. And without the last point holding its own, a story loses the energy of its core conflict.

Combined with that… one more dimension in this is just what “focused on” means.

Initiative scenes pause the flow of the hero taking the next action (or whoever’s been doing it lately) and stop to check how this character wants to take charge or go off on his own instead of following the others’ lead. This is the old rule that “everyone thinks this is their own story”—and again, it’s vital for villains, for a story to keep that sense that the hero’s got an active and unpredictable enemy looking for his weakness.

And, object scenes are the hero or other usual suspects still leading the scene, but they’re focusing their own efforts on understanding that other character.

In other words: sometimes it’s enough to have the hero dig up or slam into what makes someone else tick, while sometimes that someone else has to “grab the wheel” for a while.

In fact, that makes most scenes a chance to touch two character bases at once: the character who’s leading it and the one who’s being revealed. Though the “active” one often ends up revealing even more about himself, if where he stands about what he learns changes the story enough…

(Note, either of these scenes could be from the other character’s viewpoint, and that would certainly strengthen the contrast with other scenes. Then again, I’m one writer who rarely uses that—I like the intensity of staying close to my hero’s own journey.)

And let’s not forget:

  • most characters have more than one goal or issue, so even their own set of scenes needs contrast between those
  • most scenes have more than two characters, so they just might switch to whole other subjects in midpage


Those are the basic dimensions as I see them: alternating “who” (and their multiple “why”s) leads the next scene in dealing with who else.

When I’m still developing a story, having those motives lined up sets me up to dig deeper into just what happens in each scene.

  • A negotiation slowly unveils what another character wants, all played off of the hero’s own needs
  • A fight, same thing… all spelled out through who’s prepared what or takes how many risks for what they’re really fighting for

Or looking back at a story plan, the same layout can help me be sure I’ve got the right contrasts. If Mark has been taking the lead in scene after scene, I have to ask if he’s using that time to explore enough of Kate’s secrets, or what Rafe’s gang is really up to—and if I can go much longer without them trying to take over.

And once I know who deserves to be in a scene, all that’s left is using that who and their whys to keep each how different, starting with a Tarzan Test. When do Mark and Angie fight their lion (or is that an owl?) and when are they dodging a stormfront… and how is each scene distinguished by whoever sent that after them?

It’s all about motive.

And contrast.

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Photo by qmnonic


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