Sunday, July 19, 2009

Visual Writing Prompt: 7-19-09

Characters, in a book, come and go. They’re on-scene, then off. Your book will most likely only have 3 or 4 main characters, surrounded by an array of minor or secondary characters. You may have one main plot line, but there can be a second plot line involving the main characters or perhaps with its own characters. Your main character or protagonist probably has a sidekick or confidante. There may be one or two bad guys or one or two romantic interests. There might be a comic relief character or a victim who has to be rescued or avenged.

Although most books focus on a small circle of characters (one main reason for this is so your readers can keep them in their heads and not lose track), there can be a number of peripheral characters.

My question today is: What do those minor characters do when they’re not on-scene? Are they just gone or just doing their own thing sucked up in a plot vacuum? When you’re laying out the plot or timeline of your manuscript, add these characters. For them to be three dimensional, they need to have a life even when not involved in the action. Otherwise, they become stick figures you, the author, push on-stage when you need someone to tell the protagonist a clue or to burst in just in time to distract the bad guy or the police or to appear just in time to take the bullet meant for the lead character.

That doesn’t mean you have to tell or show the readers these characters' lives, but you need to know that they have lives. If you, the author, know the lives and actions of the peripheral characters then it will come through when the character is on-scene. Joe Beetlejuice won’t be in the hardware store for the sole purpose of telling Mr. Do-Gooder about the beautiful young woman being harassed by the bartender at Biker’s Brew Bar. Joe will be there for his own reason. Mr. Do-Gooder will be there for his own reason. And the harassment will come up but it won’t be Joe’s purpose for being there. He has his own life, you know; he does things besides run to places he thinks Mr. Do-Gooder will go so he can supply the inciting information to him to move the plot forward.

So, what do your secondary characters do? Do they have lives they live even when not on-stage? Or do they just lie around while the two or three main characters are performing?


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20 comments:

  1. LOL, I wrote one character in at the beginning, and appear to have lost him by the middle. I am going to have to wake him up as he is sleeping.

    I enjoyed my visit, thanks. Glynis@http://www.glynissmy.com

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  2. And I do just that!

    I create an outline & timeline for all the key characters in a story, along with character profiles, fleshing out their lives in detail. (Since I have five overlapping books in my series following numerous characters, I also have a master timeline that shows what each character is doing both before and after their story.) It really makes a big difference! I'd recommend all writers do that with their characters.

    Good post, Helen!

    L. Diane Wolfe
    www.circleoffriendsbooks.blogspot.com
    www.spunkonastick.net
    www.thecircleoffriends.net

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  3. I do keep track of my secondary characters. Some of them end up being suspects, so I need to know what they're up to at all times! :)

    Interesting post!

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  4. Well, this goes to prove that only the smartest and bestest writers come by here! (smile)

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  5. I really like stories that give the peripheral or secondary characters their due. These people can be incredibly useful, and their roles can be expanded for sequels.

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  6. They definitely have lives! I find that the more fully developed the characters are in my notes and outlines, even the secondary characters, the more they have to contribute to moving that storyline forward. Research and development, for me, are so useful in building the story, while keeping everyone connected.

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  7. Oooh, I'm learning so much about fiction writing from this blog and its visitors. Delicious.
    Karen

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  8. I feel the same way, Karen.

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  9. Great blog topic Helen!

    I tend to over-research everything, and if a character has a name, they have an occupation, a bit of a sketched past and adequate research time put in them for them to fill their role in the story.

    This is helpful when they decide they no longer want to play second fiddle.

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  10. That's true, Shadows. If they decide they want to move to the forefront, you'll have to decide whether to let them and how that will change the roles.

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  11. Hmmm, I never thought of using a timeline for their activities and how it intertwines with my storyline. I usually do have background stories in my head, to explain how they got where they are, and why they became involved, how they acquired the skills or knowledge they have.

    But that timeline idea .... hmmmm.

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  12. I do develop background for important secondary characters. Their back stories are important, or as you say, they will come across as flat 2D people. If they are really important then they will get their own column in the spreadsheet and entries on the calendar, both of which I find very useful for character development, plotting, and pacing.

    I'm trying to figure out your picture, Helen. Are those sea lions? Just curious.
    ~jon

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  13. Jon, yes they are sea lions. I should have made the picture bigger. I'm glad you mentioned a calendar. That's another tool I find really helpful.

    Desert Mystic, I like knowing the background stories of characters. Even the stuff that never makes it into the book defines the character - plus it might come up in a sequel.

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  14. This is exactly what has tripped me up in my current project. I had ten chapters written before I put my timeline on paper (in ET, MT, and PT because stuff is happening all over the place). A big oops. Now I'm moving scenes around to make the sequence of events correct and make those secondary characters believable. Guess I won't make that mistake again.

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  15. My "extra" characters have lives, all right. Inside my head. They're constantly demanding more stage time and lines. And their agents - won't leave me alone.

    The Old Silly

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  16. There are no small parts, only small actors...

    With that in mind in the fiction I write most of my bit part players jump into my head almost fully formed but then I draw up a quick bio for them so that they are 'fixed' as it were. Other scenes might require me to add a bit more to their bios.

    Some of my small characters turn into stars when they start to shout for my attention.

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  17. Marvin, snag one of those agents. A demanding agent is what you want.

    Patricia, glad you're making the changes. Whoever said writing was easy was nuts.

    Pan, that is so cool that your bit part characters appear to you whole. I would love that!

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  18. Love the pic, Helen, brought back memories of my time visiting San Francisco (the sea lions have taken over one wharf)!

    My secondary characters often demand short stories (and even sometimes novels) of their own!

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  19. I imagine the minor characters filing their finger nails or chatting up hot girls.

    Bargain with the Devil

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  20. I know what you mean, Marvin. A minor character in my first Max Mann novella turned into a very major character in subsequent manuscripts. They do tend to take on their own lives, don't they? :)
    ~jon

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