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Craft: Telescoping Characters

Written by Vicki Hinze

On December 28, 2010

Vicki Hinze © 2003-2011

I was studying a book on craft and ran into an unfamiliar term: “Telescoping characters.” The context didn’t hint at what it meant, and I haven’t seen it in other books on craft. Do you know what the author was talking about?
Telescoping characters is a method of adding additional layers (character traits, skills, or mini-conflicts) to an existing story character so that s/he can perform additional story roles and the secondary characters, who would have had to perform them otherwise, can be deleted.
The lead protagonist needs information from someone other than the antagonist. Secondary Character #1’s role is created to convey that information.
The protagonist needs medical knowledge from an expert. Secondary Character #2’s role is created to convey that expertise.
The protagonist uses the information and expertise to follow a lead on the antagonist, but is stymied because s/he doesn’t have a necessary skill to proceed. Secondary Character #3’s role is created to provide that skill.
Now, to telescope these characters, you can do one of two things:
1. Give Secondary Character #1 all of the skills, medical knowledge, and information to convey to the protagonist, and then delete the other two Secondary Characters.
2. Give the protagonist some or all of the skills, medical knowledge, and information and delete the unessential secondary characters.
Remember, when it comes to secondary characters, the author sets out to kill them. If they refuse to die–or to be absorbed by other characters already created–then they have earned their space in your novel.
Telescoping has a lot of benefits, in addition to decreasing the number of characters you must establish, give goals, motivations, and conflicts. It makes for more complex characters, and more complex characters, because they have so many layers and so much potential, are capable of carrying more story weight. That means, more complex plots and deeper conflicts. That gives you, the writer, more storytelling flexibility.*


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