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?


Silver James said...

I call them "Window" characters because they give a view of the MCs a reader won't get otherwise. Don Quixote without Sancho Panza? Batman without Robin? Han Solo without Luke Sky...oh...wait... Hrmm... Yes, sometimes that can be a problem.

I've only had a few of those characters and yes, each of them has a book in their future. Why? Because I'm tired of their temper tantrums!

Great topic, Joanne!

Helena said...

This is a really good topic, Joanne. Before I immersed myself in writing a novel, I didn't understand how a character could begin to assume more importance than the writer intended. I did develop a supporting cast of people in my character profiles but mostly they never made it on to the page. Their purpose was for me to get to know my characters, know where they came from.

When all of a sudden a new character emerged in my story AS I WROTE IT, I was astounded. Not only that but he became very real to me, and my writing group liked him and wanted my heroine to take more 'interest' in him. But he wasn't in my plan!!! Help!!!

So, I can understand the difficulty you have outlined. I think I have to really cut back his involvement (if he'll let me), or take him out of this story entirely, file him away for another story, and hope he emerges as strongly in another context.

Joanne Brothwell said...

I hate those temper tantrums! Geesh, why can't they just accept their consequence and move on?

Thanks for the comment.

Joanne Brothwell said...

Way to take control of that character, Helena! Good luck.

Vince said...

Hi Joanne:

The problem with removing secondary characters, especially from an advanced manuscript, is that they leave many traces behind which are not associated with their names. You cannot use the search function to find them all.

Moreover, trace mentions of the characters will make perfect sense to the author. This makes them very hard to find. The reader however will find them right away because they may lead to confusion. It might be best to transform troublesome secondary characters into tame tertiary characters. Plotting could also help. : )


Janet said...

Great post, Joanne - I think a lot of authors enjoy their secondary characters because they're rree. They can do whatever - no ties to the plot or a whole story resting on their shoulders. They are important, but creating and nurturing them is a very different process than creating and developing the main characters.

In my first draft of Lady Bells, I had her brother take a major role throughout the book. In the first rewrite, the brother's involvement narrowed and the bulk of his purpose got dumped on the hero's best friend. It worked out so much better.

Now, the best friend happens to be a scene stealer - and I've had to really scale back his outrageousness. I believe at some point he will get his own story (I just hopes he continues to be the witty, fun-loving guy he is now).

It is hard to scale those characters back - they are important to us and have a life of their own. Great idea to create a file for those, so you can go back to them at a later date. Or use those scenes for free reading on your website once your book is published.

Karyn Good said...

Great topic, Joanne. I find secondary characters difficult. Too much attention given, too little... And here I've gone and added another one in the revision process, which means I'll have to weave him into the mix all the way through. He's worth it though. I hope. Because he's staying. I think.

My challenge in attempting to write a series, although each book will be a stand alone story, is how to introduce the upcoming main characters from the next book who are now secondary and how much is too much and too little information about them.

Joanne Brothwell said...

You are so right about the traces left behind. I thought I had gone through my ms and removed every trace with a fine-toothed comb, but when I had a friend read it, there were still little stragglers. Very frustrating indeed.

Joanne Brothwell said...

Great idea about using those deleted scenes on a blog - kind of like "Sarah's Story" on mine.

Joanne Brothwell said...

Hopefully weaving someone in is an easier process than taking someone out, because the issue of leaving traces behind is rather irksome!

connie said...

My problem is just the opposite of everyone else's.

My secondary characters get little attention, provided I have dreamed them up for the occasion at all. There is virtually no indication of what they are like e.g. the hero of one ms is the brother of the hero. He is a nice competent guy who is jealous of his older brother yet wants his approval. He likes the heroine and is the type who would never try to steal her. He helps her. He feels sorry for her. He stands up for her.

But what does he look like? What does he enjoy? Can he stand horses?
In his present state, he could go incognito in a telephone book.

Those of you who have characters who need a different venue, I will consider taking them on - provided they bring their own sword.

Well said Joanne

Hayley E. Lavik said...

I think I'm a little more in Connie's boat in that I don't wind up with many secondaries. If they don't show up fully formed and willing to work, I instantly dislike them, think they feel flat, judge them harshly, and intend to chop them. I need to find something to latch on to so I actually give a damn about them. I actually blogged about this ages back, noting how few female secondaries I had, because they weren't involved enough for me to care about. I've since figured out what they needed (aka ambiguity) to get me interested, and they do fill good roles.

The ones that stick and take form though... well, I think we all know how (obsessed, in love with, fixated on) much I enjoy my antagonist. Then there's the supporter who wound up with his own subplot being resolved in this story. Oh and the mentor who isn't even alive in this story but still takes up tons of space. And the foulmouthed troubadour...

But I'm actually thinking of chopping a character right now, one who is intriguing, compelling, unique, and creepy, but very likely just doesn't have a purpose in this story beyond maybe one or two scenes. He'll be going in that home for side characters (a friend of mine has them all playing poker in her brain, waiting for their curtain call) to wait for another work. He's too good, but he's not needed here.

It's late, I'm rambling. Good topic, Joanne :)

Nayuleska said...

In the past week I've learnt less is most definitely more when it comes to extra characters. I've asked more than just one or two.