Well, Aren’t You Just a Little Character?

“That’s me in the corner. That’s me in the Spot. Light.”  There seem to be two kinds of characters in my WIPs: (1) the main character(s) who are in the spotlight and around whom the plot revolves; and (2) all those in the corner: parents, siblings, best friends, co-workers. The biggest struggle I have with characterization is making these less important folk …. well … important. Because if there’s no important purpose for them, there’s no reason for them to be there at all.

Trying to figure out their purpose (or alternatively, whether they should take a hike) is something I save for the fourth, maybe fifth drafts–usually because it takes me that long to really “get” them. It goes well beyond just trying to figure out why they need to be there. I have trouble actually “seeing” them. What does the mom look like? At first, she’s just a shadow.

That’s where fake diary entries have come in handy. Mind you, these little bits of writing will never show up in the manuscript, but they are not a waste of time. I find that only after I’ve written something (anything!) from  a background character’s point of view that I can see them clearly. It doesn’t have to be much: the dad’s grocery list, for example; auntie’s must-read list; best friend’s vacation post card; co-worker’s office party planning memo. Once I hear their voices, I can see their facial expressions, and with that comes physical features, body language, motivations, and . . . (God love ’em) PERSONALITIES!

As a matter of example, say the spotlight is on a teenage girl MC who is physically perfect, but not without a lot of effort. She is dyed, plucked, squeezed, pruned… you get the picture. The story revolves around her and how she copes with her boyfriend’s devastating, disfiguring car accident. And then there’s her dad in the corner. He doesn’t say much. I have no idea who he is. So I put him at a desk and put a pen in his hand.

What is he doing? He’s the dad so, of course, he’s paying bills.  What bills? Dental bills. Why? He’s got bad teeth. Which is why he doesn’t say much; he’s self-conscious and prefers to keep his mouth closed. Why? He got teased a lot as a kid. So? He doesn’t want that for his daughter. He does whatever he can to make her a specimen of physical perfection. Suddenly, the guy with no dialogue has meaning, and he gives explanation as to why this main character is the way she is.

I wouldn’t know any of that if I didn’t first put a pen in his hand. Imagine how much more I could learn if I had him keep a journal, or write a letter…

So don’t be shy. Come out of the corner you flimsy little background characters. It’s time to take the spotlight! And if you’ve tried any exercises like this, I’d love to hear about them.

(Oh, and my apologies if you have to spend the rest of the day trying to get R.E.M. lyrics out of your head.)

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3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized, Writing

3 responses to “Well, Aren’t You Just a Little Character?

  1. So true . . . those background characters who aren’t even quite secondary characters but we know they must exist in a protag’s life . . . yes!? What to do with them! I like the journal idea!

  2. A great post! There is so much emphasis on protagonists in novel writing, but I find the best way to understand the protagonist is to understand the people around them. I write chicklit novels, so it might not be applicable for every genre but when writing secondary characters I try and give them one situation/characteristic and use that to define them. (For example in my novel “White Lies”, Natalie’s mother has a gardener who doesn’t speak English. You find out all about her mother through her interactions with the gardener).
    They can become sterotypical at times, but I find if you have two many really complex characters in your story it confuses the reader. Would you agree with this?
    I look forward to the next post,
    Emily Harper

  3. Thanks for the comment, Emily. Stereo types are tough. When I catch myself writing a character that feels too much like a been-there-done-that, I intentionally try to flip them around. Big, tough, womanizing jerk who drinks beer and picks fights becomes big, tough, womanizing guy who keeps a small dog in his art studio and likes to paint with oils…

    I do think it’s true that too many complex characters can get distracting, but I also think that each story determines what is “too many,” and there is no rule of thumb on this point.

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