November 15, 2011

Giving Life to Secondary Characters

On Friday I was musing over whether a certain scene in my manuscript should stay the way I wrote it in the previous draft or if the story would be better served by making a different choice in revision. Over the weekend, I had a couple of ideas about the brother character that answered my questions about the scene.

You'll all be glad, or sorry, or indifferent to hear that the brother still won't be present at Thanksgiving. He has a good practical reason for missing the holiday, and also a slightly selfish reason that will be revealed in a later scene.

These new developments in the character's life will have almost no bearing on the plot of my novel. The character will appear in the same number of scenes as I'd already planned (a significantly larger number than in the previous draft, where he was problematically ignored). He'll serve the same function in the story and offer just about the same brotherly advice to the protagonist at key moments. These changes I put so much thought into will result in maybe a page worth of different text overall.

In the hypothetical story featuring the brother as the main character, what I decided over the weekend changes everything. This imaginary person has a whole new set of miseries in his past and possibilities in his future. Nobody will ever appreciate the depth of these changes, because this poor guy isn't a real person, and he's only a secondary, even tertiary, character in a novel starring someone else.

I like knowing too much about the lives of my secondary characters. It makes the characters and the story feel more real if there's evidence that the people the protagonist interacts with have their own lives when they're not on the page. It's better when the text doesn't imply that the best friend exists merely to listen to the protagonist's problems, but instead hints at rebellious teenagers at home or concern over aging parents or a devotion to French cooking.

I like imagining that every character is the protagonist of a novel that occasionally intersects with the one I'm writing.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Kathy Crowley at Beyond the Margins studies crime fiction to learn about plot: "I've never had a lot of interest in crime fiction or other crime-related activities such as watching CSI or knocking off liquor stores. And even in my current state of renewed appreciation, I don’t like stabbings, shootings or even hard-boiled hard-bodied cops. BUT blood, gore and unsavory characters notwithstanding, good crime writers are authorial yogis who can bend, twist, flex, unravel and reravel themselves around a plot."

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