Secondary characters in one form are hardly noticeable. They’re the waitress—who may be flip or quirky—that fills a gap in a scene but serves no other purpose. That same waitress may or may not have a speaking part. If the author has her roll her eyes every time the protagonist orders a cup of hot water and pours a one-use packet of Kool-Aid in it, the waitress’s part serves to point out an eccentricity in the protagonist.
Secondary characters in another form are necessities. They’re all the “extras” that get knocked about when the protagonist is chasing the bad guy down the street. Authors could, and often do, use trash cans, carts in a market, stalled cars, etc. to get in the way, but a person being knocked down, a baby stroller flipped over, or a child pushed out of the way carries more emotional power in an on-foot chase scene – other than the infamous two men carrying a sheet of plate-glass across a road.
Secondary characters, such as the oompa loopas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are more fully developed and border on being sidekicks for Charlie. Their quirky color, size, and singing while they work (sound familiar?) keep them in almost every scene in the book and movie adaptations.
Secondary characters should always have a purpose or don’t waste the paper on them. The waitress with the bold laugh and a tattoo of a chicken on her left hand might be a red herring in a thriller or mystery.
Do you remember Wilson, the neighbor who was never seen in the television show, Home Improvement? What was his purpose in the show? He made an incidental appearance when Tim or Jill argued or was worried; Wilson dispensed sage advice to move the story forward. Did you find yourself staring at the screen to get a glimpse of him?
Secondary characters are integral to crime scenes. The lead detective always needs police to order about, put on a door as a lookout, place strategically at a bank robbery, and so forth. What’s fun is to look back at what was deemed a secondary character, such as Billy in the Maisie Dobbs series, who is now valued and trusted sidekick, and study how that character developed through the books.
In the movies of the thirties and forties, there was always a secondary affable character who came to dinner, made a fourth for bridge, was tall and handsome, and possibly in love with the protagonist, a character deemed necessary for plot points and tension.
You can probably name a list of these with little prompting. Sidekicks are Dr. Watsons, Hermiones and Ronalds, Scarecrows, Lions, and Tin Men. Regardless of the point of view, dialogue is an invaluable asset to add humor, give clues, reveal personality flaws, resolve crises, and give backstory without a soliloquy that makes the reader skip pages.
In the Harry Potter series, each of the three children has a vested interestin the stakes of the story. The obvious one is that they are all coming of age in a most unusual environment. However, there also are different from those around them. Hermione is muggle-born (she’s not a blood wizard for the uninitiated), Harry is an orphan whose uncle and family abhor him, plus he’s famous in the wizarding world, Ronald is one of many siblings in a loving family.
A sidekick (stuck to your side and not a shadow) is best, in my opinion, when they are markedly different from the protagonist. It heightens the tension, strengthens the conversations, and creates rich scenes. Harry, Hermione, and Ronald each see the world differently and have few similar experiences in their past.
One of my favorite movies is Lethal Weapon with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. They were well-written character opposites. Start with the obvious: black and white, move to family man and single player, and stumble into solid and suicidal. Their repartee is mind-bending hilarious and carried out in high-risk situations, which automatically raises the tension and sky-rockets you to the climax of the story. The ending has a high impact with one of the protagonists changed, exactly what you want..
As you develop your sidekicks or secondary characters, whether obsessive-compulsive (think Monk) eccentric (think Mary Poppins), scatterbrained (think Inspector Clouseau), be careful not to make them more captivating than your protagonist – which is exactly why I used protagonist as my examples to let you see what I meant.
Monk Sidekick: Captain and Sharona Secondary: Dr. Kroger
Mary Poppins Sidekick: Bert (chimney sweep) Secondary: Admiral Boom
Inspector Clouseau Sidekick: none Secondary: Boss
What did each of these sidekicks and secondary characters add to the books/movies?
Your book is an invitation for readers to join your characters on a journey and spend hours with them. Make it worth their time by spending as many hours as it takes to create anything but bland characters, unless they are supposed to be bland, and in that case make them as bland as raw flour. Comment if you can think of one, which I bet you can with little effort.
February’s Mini Class deals with the role of characters in fiction. We will look at recognized archetypes in fiction, unique versus universal characters, dark protagonists, antagonists, character arcs, conflict, sidekicks, and voice – Whew!
Creating characters is loads of fun, the creative process at its pinnacle. What do you do in the mall, the doctor’s office, church, traffic? You notice the people around you, possibly covertly, but you’re watching. We all are. Everyone around you is a character and in the South, in case you didn’t know, a character is someone truly unique. Someone who may keep you laughing with them or at them, but always someone of interest. (Think Ouiser Boudreaux in Steel Magnolias or Festus in Gunsmoke.)
Universal characterarchetypes in literature embody those experiences shared by all of us — love, birth, death, struggle. These attributes are those that trigger intellectual and emotional reactions when we read about a serial killer who was a child locked in a dark closet, an athlete who breaks their back on a ski slope, a Jane Eyre, or a Titanic lost love.
Universal Character Archetypes
(lists abound; here are five of my favorites)
Hero: Classic good character bound by choice to the moral high ground, struggling to save the world from injustice or evil. Transfer into a story worth reading: challenge their integrity, but they remain stalwart. Katniss in Hunger Games, Batman, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Atticus Finch and Scout To Kill a Mockingbird
Innocent Child: Inexperienced, trusting, coming of age struggle, resourceful. Transfer into a story worth reading: compromise their safety. Pip Great Expectations, Dorothy Wizard of Oz, Huckleberry Finn, Jonas The Giver, Oliver Twist
Mentor: Protects the protagonist, gives sage advice, a wise/loving father or mother personae, a wizened older person, frequently a fallen hero. Transfer into a story worth reading: show their weaknesses. Gandalf Lord of the Rings, Hagrid in Harry Potter, Yoda Star Wars, Watson Sherlock, Mrs. Whatsit A Wrinkle in Time, Fairy Godmother Cinderella, Father Merrin The Exorcist
Doppelganger: Shows the other self, which they may not exist. Excellent tool to reveal complex characters. Transfer into a story worth reading: show both “sides” equally. Victor Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Roger Chillingworth The Scarlett Letter, William Wilson [Poe], The Incredible Hulk
Magician: Inquisitive, egotistical, odd, genius that likes to adjust the universe in their image. Transfer into a story worth reading: expose their hubris to other humans who are in awe. Jay Gatsby The Great Gatsby, Sherlock Holmes, Snape Harry Potter, Frank Underwood House of Cards, Huey Long All the King’s Men. https://www.storyboardthat.com/articles/e/doppelganger
TIP: I strongly suggest you keep a list of your characters’ vital information close at hand. It’s easy to forget exactly what you decided, as you move through the chapters or other books in a series. Odds are that her hair was fiery red, and three chapters down, you mentioned her glowing blonde locks. Why? Because we often change our characters during the developmental stages. I find hair and eye color changes often as I edit, as well as name changes. One thing I suggest to my clients is that if a color or name or other feature keeps returning to the page, that’s probably your museor heart telling you what it should be.
We live in a highly visual age, which means writers have a prime opportunity to see how to get into a story quickly, stage it through the difficult middle, and get out with a dangling end for the next show, a humorous end to bring the tension to a close, the world safe again, and/or a solid connection to the characters who kept your attention.
So, watch television and movies and learn. Who, after all, created the shows and movies? WRITERS! See how they did it.
I’m a big fan of serial books and a few television shows. It’s amazing to watch how characters grow and develop over time in these mediums. When I try an author new to me and find a lot to like, it’s not unusual for me to go back to the beginning of the series to watch the characters develop, and thanks to Netflix, I can also do that with a TV series. Many, I find, are too archetypical in character and setting, and I move on to lusher places. One thing about checking out earlier books is finding that the writer, who is now rich and famous, wrote like the rest of us when they began. I find that comforting.
Many of the books I mentioned in Universal Characters are also quite unique. Others are, well, universal in their particulars. Unique is frequently in sidekicks or secondary characters (more on this next time) but there are plenty of uniquely dark protagonists in classic literature and the numbers seem to grow more every day. Southern Gothic, Apocalyptic, and Sci-Fi fiction abound with some of the most unique protagonists that may, or may not, make your question your psychological well-being.
The prospect of redeeming factors lurking under these protagonists’ personas seems to be a reason for their popularity. Maybe it’s because the world is either birthing a larger proportion of these types, and we want to believe they can’t possibly be that harsh, or the reading and watching public has changed more than I want to believe, but I’ve gotten into “I” territory, so let’s turn to some highly unusual characters.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the other two books in that series by Stieg Larsson introduced a wealth of quirky characters, not the least of which is Lisbeth, the protagonist. Violent in the extreme, grim, mysterious, exceptionally intelligent, covered in black and chains and piercings, it’s a feat of determination to learn to value her. And the quirky Lisbeth is a blend of all five archetypes mentioned above.
Hero: Lisbeth is on a mission to save the world from the monsters who assembled the injustices done to her and changed her from an innocent child into a damaged young woman.
Innocent Child: Lisbeth is buried in coming of age struggles, brilliant, and resourceful in the extreme.
Mentor: Lisbeth is discovered by the other protagonist in the story, Mikael Blomkvist, and they mentor each other, using the strengths and weaknesses in both to ultimately solve a very twisted series of subplots.
Doppelganger: Lisbeth is indeed a complex character, which knows her dark side and has no knowledge of her other side – the exact opposite of what most archetypical doppelgangers are like (think Dr. Jekyll.)
Magician: Lisbeth has all of these traits, believing the universe is a perverse place.
Other unique characters that make us all cringe are Bull Meecham in The Great Santini who defines the term bully. Norman Bates in Psycho. Hannibal Lecter in Red Dragon. Annie Wilkes in Misery. Cruella de Vil in The Hundred and One Dalmatians. Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter.
And I’m sure you could add many more. But, unique characters are also those we love, –and please don’t scan this list and go on – such as:
Stephen King has written that his plots come to him first and then he creates characters to fit them. It may be his genre of books or that’s the way his muse works. For many authors, their characters appear first with a comment like, “Let me tell you a story.”
As you blend the psychological, sociological, and physical features to mold your characters, use these archetype resources to begin and then go crazy, adding and subtracting until you have anything but a stock character. Can you imagine how boring it would be if in each genre, there were a list of stock characters and those were the only characters your story could use?
Enduring stories that compel us to keep reading and call us back to read the book again may have used one of the archetypes listed above; however, if you take the time to study and think about them, you’ll discover that it was the twists the author added to thwart the characters, which illuminated the story and made it pop. Those authors gave the readers something fresh and new. You never would have heard of Alice if she hadn’t fallen asleep and found that rabbit hole.
Study your characters and Right Like You Mean It! Mahala
Over the month of January, we’ve discussed four of the six key elements to develop a story worth reading; a credible protagonist, other interesting characters, plots – the events deliberately arranged to be interesting, and points of view. Today, we’re wrapping up with the last two key elements: setting and tension.
One of my go-to experts on all things writing is Donald Maass. In his book, The Fire of Fiction, he readily acknowledges that readers often skim over settings, because authors generally write settings objectively.
What if I wrote: It was a gray house with white shutters and a red door, boxwoods spread evenly across the front.
Or if I wrote: Gerald membered the day Clarice and he decided to paint the house gray. It was the first day it snowed after they bought it, and the white house looked too pale. They painted the door a bright red the day Clarice got a good five-year report post chemotherapy for breast cancer.
The second example clearly has heart and is seen through the eyes of a character, which is exactly what Maass prescribes to make a place come alive.
I always find it interesting to see how each of the characters see the same thing. In M. C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth mystery series, Hamish lets other police officers take credit for his brilliant crime-solving because he doesn’t want to be promoted and forced to leave his beloved Scottish Highlands. Most of the people he meets think he’s crazy to stay in the isolated place with the bizarre weather conditions, and readers can see the settings clearly through the eyes and feelings of the characters. As authors, we have a clear picture, but we too often leave the reader wandering around in white space looking for the place.
In 21st Century Tips by Donald Maass, there is a great list of questions to help writers create a viable setting that speaks to the readers, even though what it may be saying is “Gross!” It’s similar to a developing character list. Here are a few similar questions he poses.
What’s the smell that never goes away? Sugar & vanilla, sea, fish, pine, peat smoke
What’s a sound you hear? Waves crashing, train whistles, cows mooing, seagulls
What food is it famous for? Barbeque, Fried shrimp, Rye bread, Pizza, Crab soup
Why can’t your protagonist leave? Family land, Isolated safety, Loves it (Tara)
Grounding with Clear Settings One final word on settings; you mustground the reader when the scene changes. Don’t leave them floating in the ether.
She hated spending Thanksgiving at Aunt Mary’s. Her husband was always a grouch and her dressing usually had something weird in it, like salted pretzels or green grapes. But they had to go. Tomorrow would be a long day. She flipped off the light and went to bed.
She finished washing the dishes and put the cake dish away. Why in the world did Priscilla bring Melody home with her? She was a vegan, and their family biggest serving on the plates was roast beef on Sundays. And now Priscilla was angry, and Norman and she had a screaming match about red meat versus sweet potatoes. Dear Lord, what would happen next?
How did we get from Wednesday night before Thanksgiving? Where are we? A few simple words could have clarified things.
Two weeks later Georgia finished…. Why in the world did Priscilla bring Melody home on a Sunday?…..
Here are a few ideas to get you on the path to grounding your readers.
One week later… I’m still…. Once I was back in my room, ….
End a previous scene/chapter with a cliff hanger, then open with the same cliff hanger.
Always let the reader know where they are, when it is through time, days, years, etc., who is there, howthey got there, whathas transpired in time or events – using the ending of the previous scene as the catalyst.
Tension vs. Conflict
Conflict is filled with Tension. ~ Tension isn’t always filled with Conflict.
This is an important principle to master. Tension should be on every page of your book/story to keep the story interesting and leaves the reader wanting to know what happens next. Conflict is the master of moving the story towards the final big conflict and resolution.
While I’m sure a list of philosophers would have a field day arguing the tenets of conflict and tension, I’m not one. Certainly, you can be filled with tension, which might cause internal conflict, but then…….. Oh, forget it and read this.
Pages can be drenched with tension because the character(s) are:
Happy, sad, lost as in on the wrong road, dejected, angry, thrilled
Curious/Concerned about (and genre is a definite factor in these):
How to get to the next step on a rocky cliff.
How to skip out on a blind date.
If their cake met with the bride’s approval.
If they passed the test.
If their parent/friend/spouse/boss is angry at them.
Whether people will come to the party?
Whether their hair will fall out with chemo?
If the house is haunted?
Will they find out?
Who is the murderer?
Why only one shoe is on the dead man?
Will (s)he marry me?
Each tension concern in the list above could certainly lead to conflict if there is direct opposition or a direct challenge between two or more characters. These characters may be acting independently, as a gang, as a consortium, representing a company, a family, a political opinion, the police, bad guys, etc.
In literature classes, the mantra for conflict is usually 1) man against self (The Book Thief, Macbeth, A Christmas Carol),2) man against man (The Hunger Games, The Hobbit, The Giver),3) man against nature (Deliverance, The Old Man and the Sea, Robinson Crusoe). Over time, a fourth one has appeared, 4) man against society (The Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451, Romeo & Juliet), and new conflict categories for other genres hover in the wings. Robots or creatures as characters 5) man against technology and 6) supernatural forces. But one could argue that creatures and robots and society all fall within the original three, which takes us back to philosophy and well, read on….
While tension keeps the pages turning, conflict moves the story to the major turning point, which transitions the protagonist and solves a problem that seems unsolvable. That, in fact, is the definition of conflict?
Direct Conflict:arguments, fist-a-cuffs, gunshots, throwing things, firing a person, slash, burn, murder, hang, torture, luring, rape, fire, chasing, being chased, stalking, arson, abandonment, abduction, inheritance, peer pressure, horse race, baseball, boxing, blackmail, car crash, football, divorce, embezzlement, theft, etc.
“I will get him/her this time, no matter what.” “Who would want to steal my child?”
Internal Conflict:self-doubt, need to leave, have to stay, loathing self or another, failure, physical debilities, intellectual disability, social misfit, lonely, aging, agoraphobia, anorexia, shock, fears, priesthood, affair, fear of abandonment, moving, college, major, driving.
“I’m an idiot!” “I won’t put her in a nursing home.” “My best is never good enough.”
I hope you’ve enjoyed these mini classes and learned a few things along the way. New mini classes begin next week. Your worksheets to help you decide which areas you feel comfortable in and which you want to learn more about will be sent this week via email.
I am delighted to announce that I will be teaching through ESILL once again. The Art of Writing and Word Magic in March and April and May, both on Thursdays from 10 – 12. More information once the final schedule is published. I hope to see you in class!
The glorious magic of creativity is the lack of requirements. Whether it’s pottery, paintings, music, or books, each creator has their own voice. It’s a good thing that we find kindred spirits in the creativity of others. It’s not a good thing when we try to copy them. When you find your “voice”, your critique groups, fans, agents, and editors will react with gusto and help you as you trek through the revision process, which when it works well, burgeons with creativity.
Point of Viewis the driving force of storytelling. It weaves emotion and the five senses into the fabric, adding color and sparkle. POV reveals the protagonist’s personality, their education, their strengths and weaknesses, their world perceptions, their beliefs, their goals and yearnings.
But, wait! There are all kinds of POV. Can they all do that? Not really. That’s why choosing a POV based on your genre and the story’s goals is important in choosing your POV. Each POV brings slightly different assets, and taking the time to learn to use the basic three is important—and then you can master the other less frequently used POVs in fiction.
First Person POV is most popular and used often in young adult fiction, because young readers like the immediacy of the story, including actions and reactions, feelings, and emotions. I do too. This is one of the reasons I’m a fan of Dickens.
In first person, the protagonist speaks to the reader directly. It uses pronouns such as me and I. The reader experiences their emotions, actions, and reactions at an intimate level.
Examples of first-person POV in popular novels include Twilight (most), Hunger Games, Evie and the Upside Down World of Nevermore, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Great Expectations, To Kill a Mockingbird, Moby Dick, Gone Girl, The Life of Pi.
Third Person Limited POVis the second most popular and commonly used in young adult fiction. It uses pronouns such as he and she when talking about the protagonist. It’s called limited because readers are limited to the POV of only the protagonist. Writers who use this style like it because it offers more flexibility to describe the surroundings and other characters, but it is still quite personal. This is a useful POV when the lead character has prominent sidekicks that are on the page almost as much as the lead. For example, the Harry Potter books uses third person limited primarily, which allows Hermione and Ron to reveal their perceptions of Harry and the events surrounding him.
Examples: The Giver, 1984, Cuckoo Calling, Hills Like White Elephants, Harry Potter, The Book Thief, Fahrenheit 451, Coraline, Little Fires Everywhere, Charlotte’s Web, The Lord of the Rings.
Omniscient Third Person POV is narrated by an all-knowing third person. It also uses he and she pronouns to tell the story, but the narrator has the ability to expose the motivations and thoughts of other characters objectively.
Omniscient POV fiction is often more complex, exploring a multiplicity of character studies. If that sounds exciting, it is, especially if you write family sagas or epic adventures. Your narrator has the advantage of knowing everything about every person in the book – a gossip on steroids.
Examples: Pride and Prejudice, Brokeback Mountain, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Mrs. Dalloway, Brave New World, Scarlett Letter, Da Vinci Code, Little Women.
Unfortunately, writers often forget to fill the driving force (machine) with gas before they start writing. As you plan your book, think carefully about how much you want the reader to know as your plot unfolds. Whom do you want to do the telling? Do you want everything the reader experiences to be only the things the narrator experiences, or do you want them to understand what other characters experience? How immediate to do you want the experience?
You know the protagonist who only gives other characters a long look or stares at the setting and doesn’t speak in movies and on television? Think Longmire, Jessie Stone, NCIS. Those looks are difficult to put on paper unless the reader knows what they’re thinking and feeling. Which POV would work best for you with characters like these? Or is your protagonist a twelve-year-old who can’t stop talking? Or maybe you write romances; do you want the reader to know how all the love interest are feeling and what they’re thinking?