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Friday, October 30, 2009

Secondary Shoes

My daughter only wears her dance shoes for about fifteen hours a week, but boy, they are important to her. She takes good care of them and loves the way they feel on her feet. They could never take the place of her street shoes, though. This is how our readers should feel about our secondary characters. In The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maass spends an entire chapter on secondary characters. The bottom line is, they shouldn't overshadow our main characters, but they should be special. One way to achieve this is to show their impact on our main characters. What about them draws our protagonist to them? What makes our protagonist want to be around them, or not be around them? He suggests thinking about our own lives and who has been special to us. Who do we choose to surround ourselves with? This is where the fire comes in. This is where the passion comes in. Apparently, according to my beta readers, I've succeeded here. Yay, me! No, not really. One of my secondary characters seems to be more appealing than one of my main characters. I can't have that now, can I? I think what Mr. Maass would suggest is to make the secondary characters special to the extent that they are useful to the main characters. In other words, our readers should care (or not care) about our secondary characters as much as our main characters do. No more and no less. What do you think? How do you develop your secondary characters without overshadowing your protagonists? Have a great weekend!

55 comments:

Matthew Delman said...

This is a huge problem for me, too. You have such little space to encapsulate your secondaries or minor characters that they end up sometimes being more attractive than your main because of that narrow view on them.

My inventor/engineer secondary in CaN is an awesome old man who served in the military with the MC's father. He's so close to the MC that she calls him Uncle, though there's no blood relation there. The inventor/engineer is so cool that I find myself enjoying writing him sometimes more than I enjoy writing the MC (she's fun too though).

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

I'm definitely still learning how to do this and I'm not sure I'm doing it that well yet. I have a tendency to make my secondary characters too flat. Then I have to go back through and pump some life into them.

Diane said...

Hard balancing act. BTW don't make them too handsome either. lol :O)

Janna Qualman said...

Oh Susan, such a good analogy!

I've never thought about this. I love how your posts make me thinkg about stuff I didn't know was important. Thanks for the tip!

Roni @ FictionGroupie said...

I've found what has helped me in the last book was that I thought of the other characters as potential people to hold up their own books if I wanted to do a series. For instance, my hero is in a rock band, but I made the other band members (hopefully) unique and appealing in their own right, so that if I wanted to I could write each of their stories as well. I'm trying to keep this mindset as I start my new WIP as well.

Tamika: said...

This part of the art of writing I know I haven't mastered. There have been times where I am drawn to a secondary character more than the MC! Very bad, indeed.

Good point about using the character to the advantage of the MC never as the primary focus.

Great post Susan, very insightful and helpful.

Deb@RGRamblings said...

I had (have) this problem in my first WiP. I fell in love with a secondary character and he overshadowed one of my MC's. He's an MC in my second WiP- but now I have a lot of work to do to tone him down in the first and beef up the 'real' MC. Groan. Great analogy BTW!

Karen said...

I don't know how to explain how to find the balance. I guess they just can't have ALL of the good/bad qualities that your main character does or should have. For example, if your secondary character is supposed to be the voice of wisdom to your protag, they probably also should have some sort of social issue or physical flaw to keep them more real. And they also shouldn't be in every scene.

Beth said...

I'm learning as I go. I probably won't know if I've failed or succeeded until I get my beta readers on it...yikes. If I'm going just on gut feeling, I think my MC's are pretty strong right now, but who knows?!

Stephanie L. McGee said...

Struggling with this one. If I could, I'd write the book about four of my characters and eliminate all the rest.

MG Higgins said...

We seem to have similar writing issues, Susan. I think I'm fairly good at creating interesting secondary characters, to the point that they're at times more interesting than my mc. I think it's because I feel relaxed with my secondary characters and tend to let their personalities shine, whereas I stress with my mc, wanting to make her *perfect*.

L. T. Host said...

Honestly? I try not to think about it too hard.

Has that worked for me?

I don't know, haha. In WIND FURY one of my betas told me that my MC's love interest/ co-protag was a little flat, so I had to go through and give him more background, bring him more to life.

No one's finished my new one yet, so I don't know how I did there, but I will say that writing this one came very naturally to me, whereas writing WIND FURY was a bit of a struggle.

Regina Quentin said...

I am going to start working on that soon. My problem with my current project is that a secondary character is more interesting then my MC, often. I liked what you said about wanting the readers to care about the 2ndary as much as the MC does, no more no less. That is a difficult task in my mind. It will be one of the things I attack while I write for NaNo. Great questions today Susan, thanks.

Tere Kirkland said...

A lot of the time I use the secondary characters to highlight a flaw the main character has, and wishes they didn't.

I try to keep sympathy on the side of the mc by having the mc recognize their own flaws-- even if they don't actually do anything about it yet.
Thought provoking post, as usual!

Eileen Astels Watson said...

Great post, Susan! I think secondary characters are easier to keep in their place when they never get a POV scene, but there are stories out there that give secondary character's POV scenes. TO my thinking, they better be smaller, less important scenes to keep the balance, though.

Cindy said...

When I read this book, I loved the chapter on secondary characters. That's a big goal in my new manuscript, to make memorable secondary characters. They're unique and important and have a great impact on my MC. Now I just need to make sure my MC stands out more. A challenge indeed.

Paul Greci said...

That's a great question. Off the top of my head, I think if you can develop a voice that shines, a voice that the reader is drawn to, then that voice is going to rule. That voice is going to be the vehicle that the reader drives thru the story. And hopefully all those very interesting secondary characters will be viewed at from that vehicle.

strugglingwriter said...

My daughter started ballet, but doesn't have the shoes yet. I guess they don't give them to the 3 year olds.

Still figuring my characters out. I will keep all your advice in mind.

plainolebob said...

Congrats

Lily Robinson said...

That's one of things that keeps sidetracking me... tweaking my secondary characters. I'm trying to give them more 'character'...

Dawn Simon said...

Excellent post, and I like your analogy. So many things in writing (as in life) involve finding the right balance.

I have something for you at my blog. ;)

Tracy said...

Orson Scott Card does a great job of dissecting the Harry Potter books on his Intergalactic Medicine Show website (like, way back in the archives I think), and discusses how Snape developped into a main character throughout the series. I thought it was a great example of a secondary character who was interesting and became an intrinsic part of the main story, but didn't take over the narrative.

Kathryn Magendie said...

(as to your comment - I'm going to print out the letter and keep it somewhere for her! And I'm going to write more . . . *smiling*)

I love my secondary characters and have fun with them. Sometimes people want more of them, or a few people wrote and said they had a crush on Virginia Kate's brother Micah! *laugh!* I love that!

~Ellie Kings~ said...

Now those shoes I love! Even if they're on display. I've always wanted to be a ballerina. :)
The closest I got was a dance I performed for God a few yrs back on New Year's Eve. What a wonderful experience!
Sometimes I give too many details on my secondary characters that I stray away from the MC. Still trying to figure it out!
Enjoy your weekend Susan!

Girl in My Own World said...

I think that you place them in the story, but never give them as much time as the main character. Like, make them apart of their lives, but never devote more the story to them as you would the main character. I suppose that could be tricky though.

Have a GREAT weekend! :o)

Leah Rubin said...

I'm not currently writing fiction, but have dabbled in the past, think about going back to it... I do enjoy reading your posts, though, because they make me think, and that, my friend, is a GOOD thing!

I look forward to your book!

Nancy said...

It sort of bothers me when the roles of secondary characters in movies are sometimes given to big stars or actors who like to "act large." An example is the announcer with the bells in Seabiscuit. There were four great characters (if you count the horse,) and we didn't really need someone so showy. It wasn't in the book, I don't believe. So, I agree, the secondary characters should not overshadow the main ones.

Iapetus999 said...

Secondary characters play crucial roles in a book. If you consider the basic character archetypes like Mentor and Ally, these are usually played by the secondary characters, without which the Hero has no chance of success. There can also be Threshold Guardians who thwart the Hero's progress, or Tricksters who confuse but also lighten the load with their humor. It pays to research these types because it could inspire some characters you haven't thought of.

Angie Muresan said...

I usually spend much time on secondary characters, just because I'm detail oriented. Must remember not to make them more attractive than my main one. Good to know. Thanks! Hope you have a wonderful weekend!

Solvang Sherrie said...

I had a problem with a secondary character being almost like another MC. It took some working so that she wasn't stealing the limelight. I didn't even realize it until a critique partner pointed it out. Love my critique pals!!

staceyjwarner said...

I'm always impressed with how you tie shoes into your writing ideas...well done!

I've been wondering about secondary characters. We'll see how it plays out in the book, I was pretty good at them in screenplays.

much love

melane said...

I'm still working on this, but so far I'm really trying to show how much my MC cares for the secondary characters.

Mary Anne Gruen said...

Here's a mistake I know well. I had a problem with a main character who didn't work as well as a few of the secondary ones. It took me a while, but I finally figured out that the secondary characters stood out because I was letting them be themselves.

Meanwhile, I had a strangle hold on my main character. And she had become wooden because I was trying to control her too much. It was a case of trying too hard. I needed to let her be who she was, or replace her with a character that I didn't feel I needed to control so much.

Meanwhile, I've given you two blog awards over at http://www.StarlightBlog.com

Don't worry about doing anything with them if you haven't got time. Just know your work is appreciated.

Tabitha Bird said...

That's a tricky one. All the best with that. I think I am still figuring out how to develop secondary characters.

Jade said...

I had feedback saying that the reader was more attached to some of the minor characters, rather then the MC. Poor Stella! Overshadowed in her own story!

Robyn Campbell said...

Susan, I am really enjoying reading this. Thanks for the gentle nudge you gave me, by discussing the book on your blog.

I think one of my secondary characters in my MG novel that I finished in June, became more important as the book progressed. As a matter of fact, my crit partner Beth talked about how good he was so much, that I made him appear more in the book. It turns out that he became critical to the story. But he doesn't overshadow the two MC'S.

Great post Susan. Happy Halloween! :)

Amy Tate said...

Susan, I think Lucy, the character that I blogged about over the summer, emerged from another character in my novel. I had the same problem. When I wrote Attack at Fleetwood Hill, I had to keep Elizabeth from jumping off the page and I didn't plan on that. If I wasn't careful, she would steal the show. Perhaps you can do something with this character of yours later?

Jody Hedlund said...

Great question, Susan. I think in our efforts to create memorable secondary character, we often make them too quirky! And in doing so, we make them stand out more than some of our primary characters.

Patti said...

I agree with Jody. You have so little time to develop secondary characters that we add touches to them that maybe we forget in our MC's. I know I've done that.

quixotic said...

Great post. It is hard to balance good, well rounded secondary characters, without making them overshadow the MC. I'm not sure if I have yet mastered this skill. I try to make their interactions with my MC unique. Each gets a little quirk that I employ when they are, on screen, so to speak. Then I limit their, on screen time, so they don't become leads. Does that even make sense? LoL.

Swapna Raghu Sanand said...

I think you have raised a very important point. I work very hard on fleshing out my secondary characters. I think I have been fairly successful in making them stand out well. Good to know that I am on track.

Two of my favorite writers, Maeve Binchy and Luanne Rice, make their secondary characters very special that you continue thinking about them even after you have finished the book but they also draw a balance so that the characters do not overshadow the protagonist. I think its an awesome strategy to grow and learn from.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Have a nice weekend!

jdcoughlin said...

Damn that Donald for going and saying something brilliant like that. Now I've got something else to lose sleep over. I have/do like my secondary characters to be just as intriguing. As a reader I sometimes find them more interesting than the main character, they're lurking, they get you to turn the page, they weave a different path. Or so I thought. Interesting point.

Lori said...

I will have to pay more attention to my secondary characters. I never do. They are mostly there to support the main characters be who they are, tell who they are. It's not fair.

Terri Tiffany said...

I like what someone said about voice shining through--if it is a strong one for the main character. I WANT this book! I looked it up online and it is getting really tempting!

Tara said...

Thanks for the comments while I was on vacation. :] This issue is a tough one. My first thought was Jacob Black in the Twilight Saga. He's a secondary character that became a main character. If the beta readers can give you concrete things (specific examples) that make them like the secondary character better, it would help you to narrow your focus. Good luck.

K. M. Walton said...

Hmmm? I don't know that I've thought about this before. I typically let the story out and everyone lands where they land. Sometimes secondary folks take a bigger part as I write, and sometimes they stay on the sidelines like a good secondary character should.

Amy De Trempe said...

This has just happened to me for the first time. The secondary characters were meant to be just that - supporting. But, as they developed, they became much more and I have to pull back on them. For a short time I became more excited about them then I did my main characters, which is no good at all. So, those two will be a sequel to my current WIP, but right now I need to force them to stay in the backseat (on far opposite sides of the vehicle) instead of the driver's seat.

Erica said...

I really gotta read that book!

I just tell myself that the secondary characters have goals as well, and I've read in several books that the secondary characters don't know they aren't the main character, so we have to keep that in mind.

Of course, you're right, they shouldn't overshadow the MC, but they should be unique and memorable :)

Great post, as per usual!

Melanie's Randomness said...

I haven't thought much of the secondary characters, I think I better start. I love people's comments to this one, it's so helpful. =)

Happy Halloween =)

Heather Sunseri said...

That's an interesting thing for me to think about, Susan. I have no idea how I do on that. Maybe I'll figure it out from my beta readers as well.

Elizabeth Mahlou said...

I love the analogy with your daughter's ballet slippers. And maybe that's your answer: relative amounts of time and attention.

Stephanie Faris said...

I think there are probably many instances throughout history where a secondary character shone a little brighter than the main characters. But most often it's just that we attach ourselves to the secondary characters because they provide comic relief or are maybe a little quirkier. We always know, though, that the main characters are the crux of the story.

Terresa said...

I like this analogy. In all the books I've read that I cherish, the secondary characters have been well thought out, not just a left over impulse.

Glynis said...

Phew, I think I might have actually got something write for a change!
These books need to go on my wish list, thanks for sharing them.

~Ellie Kings~ said...

Psst! I left you a little something on my blog. I know that I didn't need to leave this message with you since you read everything girl, but just in cases... :)