Do you have secondary characters in your novel or story? Have you given them enough attention? Or are you using them as if they were props?
As writers, we spend time in character development for our protagonist and antagonist, and tend to throw in a secondary character for dialogue or for a cause of some kind, etc. Without distinguishing characteristics, these minor beings are flat, boring, and unnoticeable. What can a writer do to enhance a minor figure’s brief appearance? For example a police officer might be in a couple of scenes, but has little importance. Find something distinctive about him. Does he smell like cigarette smoke? Does he pull on his ear frequently? Is his badge on crooked?
What about a delivery boy? In one of my short stories, he’s there for a minute, but I have him joking with my protagonist about the size of the package being taller than her. She enjoys his humor.
In a different short story of mine that won a second place award in a competition, called “A Cup of Change,” the waiter talks too much about his fiance, yet he’s infatuated with the protagonist who openly flirts with him. He appears twice in the story for brief moments, but he’s memorable. When I wrote that story several years ago, I had learned that secondary characters can reflect the theme or premise or can have a similar goal or problem in a subplot. “A Cup of Change” is about a woman who is having an affair with her friend’s husband and doesn’t realize her friend knows about it. The woman tries to encourage her friend to get a divorce since the married couple are not getting along. Meanwhile the waiter talks on and on about his upcoming wedding. The wife flirts with him and gives him advice on how to treat his bride while the mistress interprets the interaction as a good sign for an impending divorce. The young waiter’s actions show he is excited about his wedding plans, yet nervous around this mature, seductive woman. He’s a minor character but fully developed and he reflects the theme of marriage and betrayal.
Do you have a favorite minor character?
Writers know that the main character’s change follows an arc. The plot has an arc of increasing tension toward the climax and then some resolution. How can a setting have an arc?
Setting details are important, not lengthy chunks of detail, but enough interspersed so the reader has an image. The image also is relatable to the reader’s experience of being in a place like that or being reminded of a similar setting from movies or pictures.
Setting becomes a character through the details and the emotions attached to them by the character’s past and present experience with it. As the character changes, show some corresponding differences in the environment. Perhaps there are real physical changes that occur, but it is the character’s new perception of it that is most important.
For example, in Norman in the Painting, Jill’s hometown is a place of security. It’s a small county seat with attorneys and jurors rushing to the restaurants on Main Street during lunch. Tourists peruse the antique stores looking for bargains. The locals know her and the family name. Her parents spent their lives engaged in the town politics. The environment is safe for Jill. The reader sees the stores, court buildings, the alleyway to the parking lot, the cemetery, and Jill’s home as well as the contrast with her sister’s house. She enjoys the dark clouds and winter rain and jumps over puddles by the curbs.
However, as Jill becomes less dependent on that familiarity, she smells the mold in the antique stores, she feels the attorneys’ stress and hears the jurors’ complaints about missed work. She is annoyed by the overflowing of the creek from the storms’ deluge of water and the sandbags in front of every store on Main Street that she has to dodge.
After thirty-two years in the same place and never traveling, she’s ready for a change. The present setting has become oppressive. It’s a living, aging, grumpy environment needing an uplift. Jill wants to leave.
Creating setting as a character in a story is another way to deepen the reader’s enjoyment of your work.
What does the setting of your story mean to the protagonist in it?
When you first started writing, what form did you use–short stories, poetry, memoir, or a novel?
In middle school, I chose short stories and I still like to write them. Next I wrote a few novels, and then poetry. In the afternoon writing class I teach, we are writing a Haiku twice a month based on a photo members take turns bringing to class.
My preferences for short stories and poetry affect my novel writing. The shorter forms make it necessary to be aware of exactly the right words to use and to eliminate too much detail. I’ve discovered that when building character in a novel, choosing the right words is more complicated. One has to think about interspersing physical description, feelings, thoughts, and how to show a deeper, rather than a superficial character.
In my novel, Norman in the Painting, I think I’ve created minor characters that have more personality than the protagonist. I’ve written a post-a-note to remind myself to deepen Jill. She’s the center of the action, readers learn about her values by her dialogue and by the decisions she makes. However I sense she’s hiding something or resisting a close relationship with the reader. I’ll have to figure out why.
What is your favorite form to write?
A reader, editor, or agent often gives a first page three or four seconds before closing the book or tossing the submitted page onto the notorious slush pile. What do we have to squeeze into those few seconds?
- We have to grab the reader’s interest immediately, usually with writing something active not passive.
- Ground the reader in the setting, i.e. when and where the story is taking place preferably with specific sensory details. Brief and succinct, not too many details regardless how well-written–remember we only have a few seconds and we have to cover more than setting.
- An interesting character who makes the reader care about him or her is necessary. Show the character’s public and personal persona. Let the reader learn about him/her by the character’s actions, thoughts, or feelings.
- Show the promise of the story. Is there a puzzle or mystery to solve? Is there a love interest that is blocked? What does the character want? What is preventing him or her from getting it?
- No backstory on the first page until much later. Donald Maass, in Writing the Breakout Novel, suggests saving a flashback or important snippet of backstory until after page 100.
The first couple pages and the ending will make or break your chances for acceptance by an editor or agent. Feedback from a critique group or fellow writer can clarify what’s working and what isn’t.
The following link has several first lines of published fiction. How many make you want to read the book?
My previous post told about the three panelists at one of the San Francisco Writers Conference sessions I attended this year.The authors spoke about “Heroes & Villains: Building Compelling Characters for Crime Fiction.” The following are some notes I wrote from what each of them and the moderator, Kate Chynoweth, said.
Penny Warner said she gives the protagonist and antagonist equal weight and shows their strengths and weaknesses. She gives both an obstacle they have to overcome.
Laurie King is not an outliner. She writes a 300 page rough draft to find her way through the story and then revises.
Cara Black uses a particular section in Paris where the murder happens in the beginning, writes why the protagonist, Amy Leduc, would be in that area, and how Amy overcomes the unusual obstacles. Each book takes place in a different arrondissement (administrative district) in Paris and that setting becomes a character as well as the people. Cara also said that the villain is right in his/her own mind and then he/she has to continue with his belief to cover up what was done. Often the villain is smarter than the protagonist.
Kate Chynoweth pointed out that the villain can’t be completely villainous. Show something good about them or a fear they have. “Even a villain can be afraid of spiders.” For example: Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs liked classical music, particularly Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach.
During Q & A, the authors were asked what time frames they have to write their next book. Penny Warner writes one every six months. Cara Black writes one a year. Laurie King says a goal of an average of 3000 words a day could lead to a rough draft of a novel a month. It takes her 3-4 months to write the draft and then 5 months to revise.
I have to admit it has taken me 6 years to revise my fourth novel, Hada’s Fog. It’s still not polished the way I want it to be. Granted, I’ve been working only part time on it, but I had to put Hada aside for a while in order to write something fresh. I’m determined to finish Norman in The Painting in a year. I have these authors for inspiration.
How long has it taken you to write a book?
Penny Sansevieri spoke at the San Francisco Writers Conference. I went to three of her sessions. She is the Founder and CEO of Author Marketing Experts, Inc., and a widely recognized book marketing and media relations expert. She is the author of fourteen books including How to Sell Your Books by the Truckload on Amazon and Red Hot Internet Publicity.
“Don’t be an expert, be a filter.” ― Penny C. Sansevieri
She had many tips for promoting books. One idea I liked was to make trading cards and offer them as gifts for reviewers. She passed out a set of thirteen cards to everyone who came to her sessions at the conference. Each card had a writing tip. For instance, Tip #11 states, “Did you know that you can thank reviewers through your Amazon Author Central account? Every review that’s posted there has an “Add a comment” button that you can click on and post a comment” such as “thank you” which makes a connection to the reviewer and you can also offer them your latest book for free if they’d like to consider it for review, too”.
Her website is: http://www.amarketingexpert.com/
Find her on Twitter at:
At the San Francisco Writers Conference on Saturday, February 14th, 8 a.m. to noon, is the Speed Dating with Agents: A Pitch-and-Learn Session. https://sfwriters.org/2015-sfwc-speakers/#
Here is a list of the agents that will be at the conference.
Margaret Bail, Inklings Literary Agency, FL
Peter Beren, Peter Beren Agency, CA
Regina Brooks, Serendipity Literary Agency, NY
Elise Capron, Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency, CA
Amy Cloughey, Kimberely Cameron & Associates, CA
Sorche Elizabeth Fairbank, Fairbank Literary Representation, NY
Anna Ghosh, Ghosh Literary, CA
Irene Goodman, Irene Goodman Literary Agency, NY
Michael Larsen, Larsen Pomada Literary Agents, SF
Sarah Levitt, Zoe Pagnamenta Agency, NYC
Chelsea Lindman, Sanford J. Greenburger Assoc.
Laurie McLean, Fuse Literary, CA
Mary C. Moore, Kimberely Cameron & Associates, CA
Dana Newman, Dana Newman Literary Agency, CA
Elizabeth Pomada, Larsen Pomada Literary Agents, SF
Andy Ross, Andy Ross Literary Agency
Ken Sherman, Ken Sherman & Associates, CA
Nephele Tempest, The Knight Agency, CA
Gordon Warnock, Fuse Literary, CA
Carlie Webber, CK Webber Associates, CA
Ted Weinstein, Ted Weinstein Literary Management, CA