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This is post #28. Part 3 in a short series on Character Development - this one cautioning against creating a character who is only there to serve a plot purpose - also known as “FIFTH BUSINESS”.





This is another in my little mini-series on character. I want to talk today about something called Fifth Business. I first came across this term— it’s the title of a novel by the Canadian novelist, Robertson Davies, and I know how he defines it.

I have in the years since tried to find other places where it is defined in the same way, and I have not necessarily been able to find anything to back this up, but it’s still a term that I use because I think it’s very useful.

In Robertson Davies book, which was about a theatrical troupe, Fifth Business refers to a character whose sole function in a play is to deliver some kind of information that is necessary, but they have no other plot function, and therefore no character development.

This is the person who shows up in the penultimate scene to deliver the letter that brings the news of the inheritance that saves the day for your lead character. That character has no reason to exist in your play except to deliver that letter.

Now that’s a very overt example of Fifth Business, which I still would strongly encourage you NOT to put in your play. But there are less overt examples of Fifth Business where if you take a look at the job that a particular character has in the piece, you might realize that you only need them in the story so that they can help this other thing be accomplished, or another character.

There’s nothing wrong with the fact that you need them for that, but I would encourage you to challenge yourself to figure out: “Now that I know I need them to do that, how can I make them integral to the story in such a way that that’s not the ONLY reason they’re there?”

I would encourage you to look to see if you have characters who are operating as Fifth Business, and see if you can find a reason for them to exist in your world. Or, in a more crass sense, a reason for your producer to hire them and pay them a salary when your show is being produced. Other than just to facilitate the plot

So keep an eye out for Fifth Business and try to make sure that your characters are more than that.