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I have been working on a fantasy novel for the past twelve years, during which time there have been drastic changes. The most drastic being that I decided to cut out the first third of the story, as it was mainly flashbacks and backstory, and will just both mention bits and pieces into the actual story, and possibly have this as its own standalone story.

In the flashbacks/background story, the male protagonist comes from a wealthy family (who earned their wealth through magical and deceptive means, so their reputation about town is not the best). Whereas the female protagonist comes from poverty, moved to the city, and experienced much trauma while trying to survive. She has a chip on her shoulder about those who are wealthy. He was a womanizer back in the day, but when he met her, he realized she was "The One" (this is very simplistic, but this will do).

The back and forth and chemistry between them is quite powerful, but I realized it didn't really serve the story, as it's not so much about them as their child (although they are very prominent characters. And since then, the mother still has her abrasive, fiery attitude, and is quite overprotective of her son, but the father has seems to just be someone in the background. I've had trouble figuring out what it is that he does as he doesn't need to actually work.

In my mind, he is mysterious, calm, paternal, and some of the things that he has been doing behind the scenes will be revealed in the next story, but how do I incorporate these into the story?

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Give him his own arc.

(I am amused that the gender here is the reverse of what's been a problem for a long time, but the advice applies to any character of any gender.)

In the 2017 Wonder Woman film, Steve Trevor is Diana's love interest, but he has his own arc. His job is to be a spy: To spy on the enemy, to find out what they're doing, to report back or stop what they're doing to help the good guys win the war. When he finds out what they are doing, he ends up stopping them, at the cost of his own life. This arc could have happened if he was not lost on Themiscyra and did not meet and fall in love with Diana.

So give your Dad his own arc. It can be as simple as self-reflection: he knows that he didn't come by his family wealth honestly, and he decides that he doesn't like it, so he needs to do something to make him feel like he has earned money/his position/his wife/his children/his household etc.

Give him a goal (whatever relationship or thing he feels he doesn't deserve) and have him working on it throughout the story. He doesn't even have to reach his goal; failure is also a result, and can tell us about the character.

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    Agreed and for the father to be interesting in the way the mother is, with her background and her (justified) shoulder chip, you need to play around with his inner morality. Let his question be: is this a good man beaten by chance and circumstance, or is this a wholly corrupt man? Make him the former scion of a (formerly) powerful House, let the other families exclude him even as he, perhaps, excludes others. And give him a Test along his arc. A dramatic act that will redeem him or damn him to ignominy. – nunya Nov 26 '18 at 17:04
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Maybe instead of fleshing him out, you should remove him from the picture entirely --or mostly. He could be a) dead b) mostly dead c) presumed dead or d) just missing. That might seem like the easy way out, but it could actually work really well with your given back-story AND serve the interests of your narrative and your characters.

First, the pretext: Clearly, his past has caught up with him in some way. He could be out on some new cloak-and-dagger mission for his family, or, he could have refused the mission and been kidnapped (either by the family or their enemies). Or someone the family cheated in the past is out for revenge, and he got caught in the crossfire.

Next the story: Absentee fathers are one of the mythic archetypes, and can be powerful story engines --they can even be more vivid in their absence than in their presence. Depending on your story needs, you can decide if the father should be idolized or despised, if he's a good guy or a bad guy, if your character is Stronger Without Him or obsessed with rescuing him, etcetera. He can still show up in flashbacks, and you can still keep his mysterious secret machinations --that's actually even more plausible if he's not around --and if he's not all-dead you can easily bring him back in some form for the sequel (think Darth Vader).

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    This was the solution I happened upon in my own story and it works well. The 'shadow' of the absent father provides a periodic antagonist for the main character. – DPT Nov 26 '18 at 18:23
  • I think I will play around with having the father be absent or (mostly) absent. It wouldn't affect most of the story as is, anyway. Would also like to add that because the child has an exceptionally close relationship with his mother, he's developed a bit of "emotional incest' with her, and feels very overprotective of her, while simultaneously resenting his father (a bit Oedipal, I guess?). Having him largely be absent would only fuel this, but I think it could make the story even more interesting. – J.Y. Nona Nov 29 '18 at 15:12
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When you are trying to flesh out the personality of a character, then a good technique is to write a "character interview". A character interview means that you are asking your character a couple of personal question and then write down how your character would answer them. This interview is not meant to be published. It is just an exercise for yourself which forces you to look at your fictional world through their eyes and fill in the gaps about them you weren't even aware of.

Some questions you could ask your character are:

  • His past:
    • What was his relation to the other members of his family while he grew up and how did these relationships affect his personality?
    • How was he educated? What are his areas of expertise and which are the topics he knows very little about? How does his education affect the way he views the world?
    • Which were the most important events in his past which formed his personality and his world view?
    • You say he was "a womanizer" in his past. How did these relationships go? What did he want to get out of these relationships (companionship? sex? recognition? self-esteem?) and what did he actually get from them? How did the experiences he made through these relationships affect his views on love and women in general?
  • His views and opinions:
    • What is his opinion about the way his family became wealthy? How does he feel about using unethical methods? Does he feel bad about it or does he have a moral justification for their actions?
    • What does he feel when people mention his families bad reputation? Shame? Anger? Indifference? Maybe even pride?
    • What are his opinions about all the other characters in your story? Why does he hold these opinions? How would his opinions change if you would tell him those things about the other characters he doesn't know?
    • What is his opinion about all the other "big questions" your story is asking?
    • What would need to happen to make him change any of these views?
  • The motivations for his actions:
    • What does he want? What are his goals in life? (besides the female protagonist, of course. When getting together with the protagonist is his only motivation in life, then you are either writing a very shallow romantic interest or an obsessive stalker)
    • What drives his actions? Extrinsic pressure (what others expect him to do or what the situation he is in forces him to do) or intrinsic pressure (what he wants to do)? How does he react when extrinsic and intrinsic pressures are in conflict which each other?
    • What kind of activities does he enjoy or loathe?
    • What are his greatest fears?

The primary purpose of this exercise is to force yourself to think of your character as a person and how they became that person. Not everything you make up during the character interview must necessarily be mentioned in your novel. It is mostly supposed to help you find the hidden depths of a character. Nevertheless, if it results in a couple of interesting ideas for sub-plots, then that can be a neat by-product.

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    The idea of writing an interview with your characters seem brilliant to me. I've loved "The Proverb Test" as a way of checking how well you know your characters, by imagining how they would respond to being told different proverbs. This interview kind of reminds me of that. I'll use it. – storbror Dec 4 '18 at 12:18
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If you opt for the absent option, you could make the father both idolized and despised.

The child could be immature enough, or naive enough about the father issue to alternate between idolizing: "Your are my only hope" and despising "It's your fault my life stinks". Every chafing at a restriction, especially one issuing from the mother, could put our protagonist into idol mode. If the child and mother are doing the you and me against the world thing, the father is despised.

The father could be idolized until a rare return makes him despised.

The father could have cast a love spell on the mother which backfired, leaving her aloof, and him obsessed.

The father could be near-suicidally depressed (think Richard Corey), without being consciously guilty.

Just a few trial balloons, not all mutually compatible.

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    "The father could be idolized until a rare return makes him despised." For a good example of this, see Tracy Beaker. She spends the entire series idolising her absent mother and telling tall tales about how successful she is, but when her mother actually shows up in the movie, she throws a glass of water over her and slams the door in her face. – F1Krazy Nov 27 '18 at 7:02
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    Thanks, @F1Krazy for the pop culture reference. The key to using any of these concepts, or many suggestions you might get is: Use them as a springboard into making the character interesting, not as a substitute for making the character interesting. All of these ideas have an alternate identity as done-to-death tropes. Readers will jump to conclusions when they see them. Make one or more conclusions wrong, or seriously misleading, while technically correct. – user2711689 Nov 28 '18 at 14:10
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There is lots of potential there. The male protagonist is clearly conflicted and will learn to see his own family and upbringing with different eyes. The relationship with the female protagonist will transform him. That will also change what he envisions his son to become like.

Then there is the classic loyalty conflict between parent family and partner/own family; he will have to choose. Mabe he'll have to betray his father to prevent great injustice? Leave the reader unclear whether he'll do the right thing — it's not easy for him! Realizations are painful if they shatter assumed truths. Perhaps he'll even make the choice to forfeit his inheritance? He may have to work for a living, a whole new experience... although that may be too much change this late in the writing.

Generally we are interested in how our protagonists navigate the challenges of life, and how their experiences and their relationships with people change them. Great literature displays their protagonists not as static but as dynamic entities who are transformed, for better or worse, in the course of events.

Your setting opens a great space for such dynamic character development.

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