Building Strong Characters in Creative Fiction Writing Help (page 2)

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Sep 14, 2011

Beyond Protagonist and Antagonist: Your Secondary Characters

Even secondary characters have to seem as if they've come from life, rather than having being hired from a central casting agency for a short generic performance. Think of some of the people in your main character's life, people from that character's work life, family, gym, or favorite restaurant. Run some of these characters through the six action items Linda Seger suggests. You might not use all of that in the story, but all of it will inform the encounters the main character has with the secondary characters. At the start, you can't know which traits you'll use, but the exercise will keep you focused on making characters stick in the minds of the readers. The characters will add to the fictional dream you are creating, not distract from it by appearing as if they are there only to create opportunities for the main character to have someone to talk with or react to.

When you are dealing with secondary characters, Adrianne Harun, author of The King of Limbo and Other Stories, takes a line from Carol Shields' The Stone Diaries as her guiding light, "Life is an endless recruiting of witnesses."

Harun notes:

Many beginning fiction writers find it difficult to move from a situation to a story. There are all sorts of reasons for that, of course, some having to do with understanding causality, others having to do with not fully comprehending what the situation means to the characters, what the greater subtext might be.

One route to uncovering a reason and dynamic for the story within a situation is to put the secondary or minor characters to work, and to do that, first you have to get to know everyone a bit better. To see how secondary characters and stories can illuminate a larger story, take a secondary character from a chapter or story and have that character relate a memory tangential to the larger situation.

For example, say your story or chapter introduces two feuding sisters who speak to each other only through their housekeeper, whom they treat like a useful kitchen tool. You might have the housekeeper relate a memory about a sibling of her own, say a story about her deaf younger brother. Perhaps the housekeeper's brother once got into trouble while she was supposed to be watching him, but instead was intent on listening to a new record through her headphones. Or the housekeeper might recall how that same brother saved a girl's life because he was the only one to see a beam breaking in a crowded and extremely noisy nightclub. Or maybe the housekeeper's brother wandered into a bank robbery and foiled it by his seemingly fearless appearance between the robbers and the frightened tellers. This secondary story must contain a dramatic element—that is, something must happen. The main characters—in this case, the sisters who employ the housekeeper—must not be mentioned in this anecdote/story.

Additional Advice for Making Engaging Characters

Josip Novakovich writes in his book Fiction Writer's Workshop that in good stories, some characters change and some do not; the ones with constancy and unchangeability can make the story, too, Novakovich says. "The part of the character that does not conform builds a conflict and the conflict makes the story." For instance, a father who belittles his son for not having the kind of profession the father enjoys—the son refuses to be ambitious and instead of becoming a doctor makes a living as a paramedic or a fireman—learns the value of his son's job when people like his son save the father's life. The son hasn't changed and his not changing may become productive for developing the story.

Whoever your character, though, never stereotype, Novakovich instructs. We may need gamblers and misers in our stories to tell them, but we must write them not as misers, but as people "who happen to be miserly."

He uses questions like these to sketch out his characters:

Try This

To work on developing your characters, pick and choose from among these writers' exercises. If you become stuck in writing your story, you can stop and answer more of the questions or create your own: What holiday is my character's favorite holiday? Why? Where does my character hope to go on vacation? Where does she shop for food?

You get the idea. The aim is to find out enough to have your characters act believably as well as surprisingly in your imagination and in the story you are writing.

An idea for writing a story as you develop a character: Give your character an imaginary Facebook page: What conflict is brewing in his or her soul and what does he or she post because of it? What do others post back? What causes and groups is he or she asked to become a fan of? What Facebook games does the character play? I don't know if this has been done yet in short story or novella form, but I think creating a story this way lends itself to practicing good character development.

If you don't like Facebook, you can develop something similar by using the diary form—choose a character, choose a conflict facing the character, keep a log. For instance, maybe the character has just learned she is diabetic, has to cope with weight loss, and has been told to keep a food journal. What does she write in it? How revealing can you make it about her life?

The April 12, 2010, issue of The New Yorker magazine has a short story by Mike Sacks and Scott Rothman, all in tweets. In "Geoff Sarkin Is Using Twitter!" a groom begins updating his followers as he is walking down the aisle to meet his bride and continues through the first night of his honeymoon! Facebook, Twitter, diaries—it isn't hard to find a way to learn what your character is up to and how he or she speaks.

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