Saturday, January 05, 2013

Novel Craft: Side Characters

Hi, folks, I'm a novelist and like to spend January chatting about novel crafting.  Novels are huge undertakings and take some serious work.  This series is about practical advice for those with a complete novel draft.  Once you have a substantial draft, you must fine-tune your novel.  During this stage of novel crafting, you must leverage each element of your novel. How is this done? I will spend this month offering tips and suggestions to add texture and depth to your novel. This week I'll focus on side characters.

Solid drafts have powerful main characters that are fully realized. They have interesting and complex plots. The settings are also rich and detailed. Even with all this in place, your book is not complete. This is the time to add dimension to your story. One way to do this to pay close attention side characters. It's important to make sure that each one of your characters is uniquely distinct from all other characters in your story. There is nothing more annoying than a story with one-dimensional side characters. Stereotypical side characters will also weaken your story.  You must take time to bring these side characters to life.

Look at them closely. Are they always making obvious choices? Consider letting them make unusual choices that clash with the choices of the main characters of your story. What can your side characters do to surprise your reader?  Allow side characters to steal scenes. I learned a lot about side characters from Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz. This classic comic strip is packed scene stealers.
Main character Charlie Brown's friend Linus clings to his security blanket but speaks eloquently about matters of faith. His sister, Lucy, is the bully of the story, but is also the manager of the psychiatric booth, offering five cent advice. On top of that, she's an awful baseball player. These side characters shine.

Allow your side characters to grow. A side character can become quite significant. Think about Snoopy, Charlie Brown's pet dog, who began as a conventional dog but acquired alternative personas -- the Red Baron and Joe Cool. Snoopy is a struggling writer and is an excellent baseball player (note the contrast with Lucy-- defintely look for those opportunities.) . All the Peanuts characters have a unique slant.  Are you using your side characters to add color and depth to your masterpiece? 

Look at stories that have an ensemble approach for the best examples of side characters. Not every story needs an ensemble approach but every story will benefit from more complex side-characters. Come back next week for more advice to fine-tune your novel.  

Here is a doodle: "Rainbow".

A quote for your pocket!

A book is never a masterpiece: it becomes one. Genius is the talent of a dead man. Carl Sandberg


Mirka Breen said...

Side characters is where I have the most *pure fun.*

With my MG, THE VOICE OF THUNDER, I had an offer to publish about a year before the offer I accepted. The first publisher wanted me to omit one of the side characters. I would always consider such, especially as this was the first offer I got. But as I mulled it over, it became clear to me that this one character, "side" or not, was important and had to stay. That meant I had to move on and not accept their offer. Really hard at the time.
Side characters must matter in every way. I agree.

Candilynn Fite said...

In my YA historical, which I've not yet polished, I still need to go back in and do this very thing. The first draft was all about what the main character did, and I noticed she was the one who propelled the plot forward. At every turn, what she did or said twisted the plot. Your post has given me lots to mull over. By going back in and creating these side characters to make choices, which are out of her control, may very well be what the novel needs.

Vijaya said...

What a wonderful series -- do you somehow know what I need to work on? I've seen so many wips where it is the secondary characters that round off the book.

Happy New Year, Molly!

MollyMom103 said...

Hi Mirka, Thanks for illustrating the absolute importance of side characters. I appreciate your candid thoughts.

Candi! Hope this whole series hits the right spot. You are a rising star.

Hi, Vijaya, ah, I'm always so glad to find us in step. Happy New Year! Hug.

Faith Pray said...

So many aspects to work on! When I was a teen, my mom and dad would always harp on me to revise my writing, and in true teen fashion, I rolled my eyes and whinged. Now I get it! So much to do! I love side characters. I love the depth and unexpectedness they can bring to a story. I want to keep my sides from being stereotyp-ic. Any ideas on how to steer away from stereotypes?