Wednesday, February 20, 2008

There Are No Small Characters

Maven Darcy BurkeFirst, a housekeeping note. We still need addresses from byrdloves2read and Bridget Locke so we can send you your prizes!

So while we were running our Valentine story, I banked a couple of blog ideas that came up as I was working. This one’s about secondary characters, something I struggle with from time to time. In Her Wicked Ways, there’s a secondary character who acts as a foil for the heroine. Or maybe her friend. Or maybe both. I’d write scenes with her and Maven Lacey would ask, “What’s Beatrice’s deal? Is she friend or foe?” I would scratch my head and say, “Uh, a little of both?” It wasn’t that I didn’t want to figure it out, it was that I wasn’t sure what her arc would be. And yes, I was surprised to find she has an arc. A good one too. She goes from a sheltered, country mouse whose parents control her every move to a self-aware young woman who has her own goals.

Speaking of goals, Maven Erica has said that every person who walks onto your page should have a goal for that scene (and it follows that they should have a motivation and conflict too, but I won’t overwhelm you today). I wasn’t sure what Beatrice’s goals were because I wasn’t sure how I needed her to weave into the story that I was trying to tell. Side note: I want to be clear that I try not to let my characters dictate what they’re doing. I used to think that so and so could do something because they just “wanted to.” But they’re figments of my imagination! If I’m having a dream about something I don’t like, I wake myself up and change the stupid dream! So, I demand that my characters, especially secondary ones, do what they ought in order to tell the story I want to tell. Thankfully, I’ve figured out how Beatrice can do that and it only took me two-thirds of the book.

Now that I think about it, maybe there are small characters. Some secondary characters are less dimensional than others and they have to be to keep your novel from becoming a cast of thousands and a ten-part series. For instance, Beatrice’s mother has a fairly minor role, but I know enough about her to add a bit of depth to the scenes she’s in. Other characters aren’t even secondary, they’re sort of “walk-ons” or “bit players.” Maybe the gardener or a grocery store clerk or a doctor. Those types of characters don’t have arcs (well, they don’t in my books), but they still might have a goal for their scene. A goal that could very well further your plot, provide a great opportunity for a main character to illustrate something about their arc, or instigate a fabulous scene disaster to foil your main characters. Oooh, I love scene disasters! But more on that another day.

Do your secondary characters have arcs? How about goals? Do you think about them well in advance or as you’re typing away do you just write “Dave skidded his bike into the driveway” without really thinking about who Dave is and what he’s doing there? Anything fun you discovered while you were writing recently? Do tell!

Hmm, some day I'm going to have to write about word ecomony. This post was twice as long when I wrote it and I've since edited it down to this. I'm just afraid that post might be about three sentences long.


Gillian Layne said...

Hey, good morning!

I've always (since Fanlit, a million years ago??) had a issue with secondary characters, mainly the fact that they take over every story or scene they're in. I'm better about tamping them down now, but I've still not figured out why they DO this.

And I've read you guys' advice on "each character is in the scene for a reason" but I know I don't think much about that either. Maybe on my next go-round of revisions.... :)

As usual, excellent post!

William Wren said...

i think it important that secondary characters third characters and relations to the shopkeepers postman should all be fully developed and phych analysed and deeply complex. the idea is to keep the reader guessing. that any of these people are capable of suddenly doing something unpedicted and significant

B.E. Sanderson said...

Great post, Darcy. I guess for me it depends on the story and the character. I have some extremely well-developed secondary and tertiary characters, and others that aren't developed so much. Whatever fits the book at any given time. In the book I'm editing, two characters who look like a walk-ons in the beginning are crucial by the end of the book. One has background, the other doesn't. Both make an impact, I think. *shrug*

Carrie said...

Great story! And something I needed to be reminded of right now as I'm trying to create my secondary characters in Book 2. In FHT I have a secondary character that one CP detested. It was so interesting to me to see such a strong reaction! Part of it was just that I didn't know what the character's role was and I didn't figure it out until well into revisions. In fact, I realized just how lost I was with the character when JP pointed out that she didn't utter ONE word in the entire last third of the book. Oops. So I wrote a scene with her and *pow* I figured out what her deal was.

Angie Fox said...

Great post. I'm not sure it's necessary in all books, but my secondary characters have to have arcs, just because of the type of story I write.

My heroine is a preschool teacher who is forced to run off with a gang of geriatric biker witches. So while the events in the story change the heroine, they also have to change the biker witch characters, just because they're going through such a world altering event as well.

And it's a lot of fun to not only challenge the hero/heroine, but the secondary characters as well. I find that's when your characters really surprise you.

Darcy Burke said...

Hi Gillian! Secondary characters must be beaten into submission. If they're a problem, give them their own book!

Hi William! Thanks for stopping by. Interesting assertion. I'm not sure I can think past a scene goal for some of the bit players in my books (well, I could, but then I'd have that cast of thousands), but something to think about.

B.E., whatever works for you!

Carrie, that's exactly what I did with Beatrice. I wrote a scene in her POV and pow!

Angie, your book sounds hilarious. I can't wait to read it!

Writer & Cat said...

My secondary characters in my women's fic definitely had arcs. In romance, less so, but I hope I do give a sense that there are good (or bad) things in store for them in the future, depending on how I intended for readers to feel about the characters :).

Jody W.

Jackie Barbosa said...

I heart secondary characters in a way that's actually dangerous. You said a secondary character who wants to take over should get his/her own book. Dang, that happens to me ALL the time :). But it still doesn't always stop said secondary character from wanting to do his or her own thing in the current book, independent of what I might want.

Yeah, I know they're all products of my own imagination and ought to toe the lines I set out for them. But I do find that once you imbue a character with goals, motivations, and conflicts, you find that that WHAT they're impelled to do by those things isn't always exactly what you had in mind!

Or at least, that's what happens to me!

lacey kaye said...

I think it was Maven Erica who caught the Beatrice thing, but regardless, you've brought her a long way.

I love secondary characters. Gillian, I think one reason secondary characters have a habit of taking over is because in our narrow author minds, we think it's ok for secondary characters to live outside the box we won't let our main characters leave because we're afraid of the market.

See my post tomorrow for more on this idea!

Manuscript Mavens

Manuscript Mavens