Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the newly released The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.
When I first started writing, my plot lines and characters completely revolved around my main character. For example, in one of the stories I wrote in high school, a girl named Paige was moving back to her hometown after having spent her junior year living in another city. Every conversation between Paige and her old friends is about Paige. Every plot line is about Paige. It really is like when Paige left town, the other characters put their lives on pause.
This is a fine thing for a first draft, but it definitely needs to be fixed when you do your "macro," or big picture, edit. (My friend Erica Vetsch wrote a wonderful article about macro-editing for Seekerville a few days ago, plus Jill and I talk about it in the Go Teen Writers book.)
But how do you tell your secondary characters to get a life of their own, and yet keep them from taking over the story or demanding an entire plot line? Here are some ideas:
"Borrow" your friends.
Quickly think through the people in your life and what they have going on. What long-term battles are they fighting? What are they rejoicing over? How do they spend their days? With about 30 seconds of thought, I thought of people I know who are:
- Battling cancer.
- Watching a parent battle a chronic illness.
- Struggling to figure out what the next move is career-wise.
- Hurting over the loss of a mother.
- Celebrating the arrival of a new baby.
- Promoting a new book they released.
- Potty training their stubborn 2-year-old.
- Preparing for a party.
While I don't encourage ripping plot lines from the struggles of your friends, I think this exercise can help us with brainstorming possibilities for activities and events that can preoccupy our cast of characters.
Show their life in dialogue.
While it's important that your cast be fleshed out, the reader likely won't want paragraph blocks of explanation for every friend and enemy of your main character. So one of the best ways to bring out the life of the secondary character is in their dialogue. And this doesn't have to be something elaborate, but something simple like your main character saying, "Oh, hi, Jenna," to her best friend when she sees her in the hallway. Jenna looks a bit gray in the face and says, "We just had to dissect a frog in Biology."
Something like this breathes a bit of life in Jenna. We now know a bit about her - she doesn't have too strong of a stomach, and is possibly a bit of an animal lover. Also, we don't feel like her life stopped just because the main character was in a different class.
Don't let them always agree with the main character.
Sometimes I read books (and sometimes I write first drafts) in which the main character takes a stand on something and her best friend completely agrees. And in the next chapter, she agrees about something else. And in the next chapter...
On it goes. While in real life I'm a big fan of my best friend agreeing with me, in fiction it makes for rather boring dialogue. Try to find ways that your character's friends can be for them in the big picture, yet against them in little things. This is done superbly in the Harry Potter series with Hermione. Hermione is obviously on Harry's side throughout the entire series. but she gets mad at him when he does something she deems foolish or when he isn't studying enough, etc.
Character journals are one of my favorites James Scott Bell tricks. This is where you journal as a character, and it's so effective for developing the voice of characters other than the main character. You can start with a simple question like, "Tell me about your relationship with your mother," and then just let their story pour out in their own words.
My mother was a wonderful woman. She was the type to have cookies freshly baked when I came home from school, or to spend all afternoon making Christmas ornaments with me. But I never even recognized how good I had it until she died.
From there the character might start talking about how her mother died, or what that day was like, or how cold her father has been since then. You never know what's going to pop out, and it's wonderful!
Easy on the drama.
I love Veronica Mars, and in my days of free time (read: before I had kids) I would watch the bonus features on my Veronica Mars DVDs. If you're unfamiliar with Veronica Mars, Veronica is a teen private eye. In every episode there's a case she's trying to solve, and it's usually the "B" storyline. The "A" storyline was something having to do with her personal life or the BIG case that she was trying to solve over the course of the season.
In one episode, the B storyline (the small case Veronica was trying to solve) was an emotionally heavy plot. Something like a couple was trying to find the biological father for their son and convince him to donate bone marrow because their son was dying of cancer. In the commentary, the creator/head writer of the show talked about what a mistake the storyline had been, that it was way too emotionally heavy for a B storyline.
I thought that was a really interesting observation for him to make, and it's a good thing to consider when crafting the storylines of "extra" characters. You don't want the drama/emotion of that storyline to grow bigger than your main plot.
Do a couple character building exercises to help clarify them in your head.
Often we do these exercises just for our main characters, but trying doing them for all your important characters and see what you come up with. See how it bends their story:
I hope this list is helpful! Anyone have any additional suggestions?