Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Secondary Characters: Buddies, Boyfriends and Wingmen
Back-up cops, spunky sidekicks and the busy body next door – these sideline characters can create some major dilemmas for an author. Even though they’re supposed to be secondary to the protagonist, sometimes they become larger than life, and if we’re not careful, they can eclipse the main character altogether.
Occasionally secondary characters expand as we write, especially if we’re a “pantser” (flying by the seat of our pants). There’s nothing wrong with this happening, but it does require us to carefully consider how to best use the character to further our story.
We should place these characters under a high-powered lens to ensure that the amount of “air time” they’re getting is truly integral to the story. If it seems like their character has gained so much momentum that they have truly obscured the protagonist, we should take a step back and examine why, and more specifically, what the main character might be missing. There’s always the possibility that the secondary character should be the focus, under which circumstance we should consider starting over (Wait! Don’t delete that file!).
We should take care not to overrun our stories with too many secondary characters. Too many names and behaviours can become dizzying, not to mention confusing the heck out of our readers. If this happens, consider combining the purposes of characters so that one person can take on the roles of several. This way, both the author and the readers will be able to follow those important characters without getting bogged down trying to sort out who is who, and who did what.
In my novel Indigo Blaze, superfluous characters were repeatedly pointed out to me. For some reason, I was resistant to getting rid of them, due to the fact that they each played a role (albeit, sometimes small ones). So I went back to really scrutinize what those particular characters were doing in the novel and considered combining the roles of two or more characters. At the end of the day, it wasn’t the characters that were important, but rather their effect on my protagonist and the story itself.
Even after I came to the conclusion that I needed to combine some characters and eliminate others altogether, I had a hard time taking that next step to make it concrete. Why was I holding on to characters that were unnecessary? It certainly wasn’t because I was trying to add pages to my novel (at 143,000 words, the opposite was probably true). It was because I felt attached to them. They were my babies; made up from my own thoughts, my own blood, sweat and tears. I had nurtured them, woke up with them in the middle of the night and provided tender loving care twenty four hours a day (in my head), all so that they would feel like real, living, breathing people. And they did.
The problem was, they had outgrown their use, but I wasn’t willing to give them up. What did I do? I put them in their own special little home I called “Side Characters”; not to neglect them, but just to foster them out temporarily, with every intention to breathe life back into them in another novel. That spiky-haired Tinkerbell sister and the red-haired, freckle-faced wingman are still waiting in their special little home, hibernating until I invite them out for their special moment to shine.
Have you had this much difficulty cutting secondary characters?