Thursday, May 2, 2013

How to Give Secondary Characters a Life...Without Them Taking Over the Story,

by Stephanie Morrill

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.

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?

32 comments:

  1. I like this list! My first drafts usually turn up secondary characters I didn't know I'd have. And then they get story-lines I didn't think they should have. But as long as they don't take the story from the MC, I'm okay with that. ;) I had a lot of fun figuring out everyone's love languages.

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    1. I'm the same way, Cait. I love the surprises of the first draft!

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  2. Love this! Yeah... my second draft will be all about fleshing out my Secondary Characters.

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  3. Wonderful post! Maybe you can have a look to their relationship to the MC and let happen something there.
    Btw: the article of Erica Vetsch is GREAT! Can you tell her that?
    And don't talk about the GTW-book... :)'cause that tells me that I really have to buy it and that isn't possible at the moment...:(

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    1. Lol, Arende :) Yes, I'll tell Erica. I always love when she gets featured because she's such a great teacher!

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  4. Gosh, this is all so helpful! I think in my second draft, I'm going to have to focus my work on a) side plots b) side characters/antagonism and c) pacing near the end. :)

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    1. Pacing near the end can be a big struggle for a lot of writers. I guess we're just so eager to get it done :)

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    2. Probably, yes. :) My problem with antagonism is I don't LIKE bad stuff. xD But I know...I know...I need it anyway. ;)

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  5. Thanks for a great post as always, Stephanie! I'm now like 65% of the way through Ellie's story and WOWMYGOSH I LOVE IT EVEN MORE THAN I DID YESTERDAY! I identify so much with her (you really struck gold with that MC: you knew all your followers/borderline-cyber-stalkers ;) would read it because it is practically our life story, lol) and this is the first book EVER where I can't pick between the guys! I can ALWAYS pick, even in The Hunger Games, I knew from halfway through book one that I wanted Gale as the friend and Peeta as the love interest. But Chase... Palmer... Palmer... Chase... GAH!! I'm dying here!

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    1. And now I'm done! I don't think I've read a book so quickly since the Hunger Games. I really like where you ended it, Stephanie! But if course I'm dying for a sequel. And I approve of her choice of guy (won't give it away for people who haven't read it yet) but yeah -- I loved it! :)

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    2. Hannah, thank you! And that's so funny because I felt the same way. Usually I have a clear idea of who the love interest will be, but Chase and Palmer kept flipping on me :) I'm so glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for telling me :)

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    3. I have a definite opinion on the guy. And from what Stephanie has told me as she wrote book 2, I'm going to be SO mad at her! ;-)

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    4. I choose Chase. But both guys have super-cool names. Oh, Hannah, you could PICK in the Hunger Games? I'm still stuck!

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    5. @Roseanna interesting... I'm intrigued :) can't wait! You're so lucky you get updates before the rest of us poor tortured souls who have to wait! ;)
      @emii hahaha, I loved them both, but in very different ways. I guess I wouldn't have een TOO upset if she'd gotten with gale... But Peeta risked himself for her so many times, and he was just too cute!!! Xx

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  6. I pinned for future use :) This is going to be so helpful for me, as I have enormous difficulty giving my secondary characters vivid personalities.

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  7. Thanks! So they don't have to have the same beginning, middle, and end but they need something to talk about? Like an extra interaction with the MC?

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    1. They need something to do that doesn't just consist of trailing after the MC like a puppy (if that makes sense.) It's like... When you read Ellie Sweet, Ellie's friend Bronte's struggles with writing and keeping up with her kids are a subplot. It's not related to the love triangle. Make sense?

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    2. Yes, they don't necessarily need beginnings, middles, and ends. If they have their own POV, then some sort of plot arc is good, but if they're just the main character's best friend or something then you don't have to add a whole plot line unless it works for the story.

      And Allison's example is a good one. Bronte clearly has a life going on outside of mentoring Ellie. The reader doesn't need her to have a whole beginning, middle, and end. (Or at least I hope they don't, because I didn't give her one!)

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    3. In my opinion, it would be a little too convenient if all the secondary characters' problems ended at the same time as the MC's. I think it's good to have their lives keep going even when the MC's problems stop, like you said in the post.

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  8. This is perfect timing for me! On my lunch break I was working on my first draft and realized that I had given my MC's best friend a horrible experience to further the MC's story and then literally dumped the friend! As in, she was no where to be found in the rest of the story! I made a note to add her in more and went on, but now I have a place to start! Thank you!

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  9. Thanks Stephanie! :D It's like how in Harry Potter, what makes the characters interesting is that they all have things going on--the twins are playing pranks, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley are worrying about money, Lupin is worrying about his "condition" (trying not to spoil people!), Hagrid has some crazy new creature, etc.

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    1. Yes, J.K. Rowling does this so well! I absolutly love her side characters...

      ~Ellie :)

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  10. This is great timing for me too! Because of the situation I'm putting my characters in together, they haven't got a whole lot of individual problems. That's something I will definitely need to work on in my second draft.

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  11. In the first draft that I just finished (thank you, NaNoWriMo), I actually have better character subplots than I thought. My MC's best friend has a similar personality and temper, and her main goal is to become a doctor. Another of my main character's goal is to excel at and get commended for his job. And they disagree with him a lot. I'll have to flesh that out more, though. Thanks for the post!
    Katia

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  12. Jenny B Jones does this insanely well. I just finished "A Charmed Life" -- which is actually a three book series in one -- and wow, can I just say, I have no idea how many times I laughed out loud. In my psychology class, I was smiling so big and I started laughing and I had to convince my teacher that I wasn't laughing at her and her lesson on visual perception. Anyone else read it?

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    1. No...but now I think I'll have to! Dreaming Anastasia by Joy Preble made me crack up so many times, my friends were looking at me like I was some crazed manic, lol. And Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake. And Strange Angels series by Lili St Crow... I feel like I always mention the same books on here, I do read other stuff, I promise! These are just my long-standing faves... And Meg Cabot! Anything by her is hilarious, but my favourite is by far the Mediator series. If anyone else has read it, there's going to be a book 7! Eeep! :D

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    2. Yes, Emii! Jenny's books are wonderful :)

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  13. This is such a fantastic post, and it's so true, too! It's easy to get caught up in the head of your MC and forget to give the side characters dimension, but when you provide every character with struggles, triumphs, and a unique story of their own, it adds a lot of depth to a story. Some of my favorite characters from various books are secondary--Hermione Granger and Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter, Dustfinger from Inkheart, Finnick from the Hunger Games, etc--and when done well, supporting characters can really enrich a novel. Currently, though, I think mine still probably fall a bit flat, so it's definitely something for me to work on. ;D Thanks for all of the amazing tips!!

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  14. I love reading this blog. It gives such awesome knowledge! and I find that reading it, helps me improve my writing when I thought it couldn't. But I do have a question.
    You might have done a post on this before, but I don't know where it would be. Anyway, here it is.
    What are the actual steps to getting your book published? It may be a dumb question but I really don't know. Do you really have to get managers? how much does it normally cost? (I had no idea it even cost to get a book publish..) So do you think you might could do a post on the steps to getting your book published?

    Thanks very much!
    Hannah

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  15. This is interesting to think about, but in the story that I am really working on, the main character is self-centered. I try to drop hints that other characters don't lead a perfect life, for the readers benefit, but it can be hard to keep the main character from asking obvious questions or to keep her from pushing for an answer when one is needed.:)

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  16. Do you think you could do more blogs on character development and personality? I love this blog and those are the things I really benefit from. :)
    -LHE

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