Secondary characters add depth and interest to the world your main character inhabits, helping to make the tale more memorable. They play a significant role in your story, but aren’t necessarily integral to the plot. These characters may be protagonists or antagonists of their own subplots.
Strong secondary characters reveal more about your primary character by, motivating, creating stumbling blocks, or helping define the setting by use of cultural clues. He or she may goad the protagonist into doing something out of character to the benefit or detriment of either of them.
These ancillary characters may become more popular than your protagonists. This happened to me in my children’s chapter books as Frankie, Charlie Chameleon’s obnoxious pet fish, became the favorite of many readers, adults as well as children. There is something about Frankie, maybe his naughtiness, that makes him relatable.
We don’t have time for me to tell you the whole story, but I turned up sick on October 9, 2020 and haven’t been back to my old self since. I’m better, but I have good days and bad days and too many doctor appointments as I work through what’s going on and how to treat my issues. (No, it’s not Covid.)
But whether it lasts days, months, or years, nearly every writer has had their plans interrupted by illness. How can you still make progress when you don’t feel well? Here are a few ways to keep moving forward.
Take Care of Yourself
Taking a break and caring for your health may seem like stagnation of your writing plans. However, it’s actually moving forward, because if you don’t care for yourself, you’ll get less done in the end.
At times, I’ve felt bad, tried to push through, and ended up spending three hours completing a task that would have taken an hour if I’d only waited until I felt better. I understand the frustration of wanting to get things done, but it’s vital to work smart when you don’t have full energy reserves.
Your best option may be to set your manuscript aside and spend time in the fresh air, grab a nap, or take an Epsom salt bath. Prioritize feeling better so that you’ll have the energy and focus to work on your book when you can.
There is a tricky situation that occurs in the lives of writers. To people who are not engaged in some kind of similar creative pursuit, explaining a difficult day can be met with expressions of disbelief. “You mean sitting in your seat and typing words was hard? Exhausting? Really?”
These people may also not understand why the words of others can hurt, whether that hurt was intentional or not. It can be anything from a bad review to a critique from a well-meaning colleague or beta reader that can make us doubt, stall, quit.
I’ve been on a bit of a Brené Brown kick lately.
[Full disclosure: I gave away nearly a dozen copies of her Daring Greatly, have been listening to every talk I can get my hands on, and recount key points almost daily to my very patient husband.]
Most recently, I’ve been listening to The Power of Vulnerability, which has been great because it is a live recording of Brené and I get to hear that she is a lot like me in her resilience to this whole open and honest thing.
But it has got me thinking quite a bit about what it might mean to be a whole-hearted writer. To start with, these are the guideposts she suggests of whole-hearted living:
No creative soul likes receiving negative feedback on their work—no matter what we might tell you, beloved crit partners, beta readers, editors, agents.
Yes, we may admit we need it, and that it helps immeasurably to get objective input on what may not be as effective on the page as it is in your head, but as one author I work with memorably put it, having someone offer positive, constructive critique of your story is like an Orange Theory workout: You dread it going into it, hate every second while it’s going on, but afterward you feel great having done it.
But receiving negative, destructive input—criticism—can do more damage to your writing, and your creative efforts in general, than almost any other pitfall of writing life. I’ve heard too many horror stories—one just this week that inspired this post—about feedback that shut down authors’ creative impulses, filled them with self-doubt about their story and their writing in general, and in one awful case decimated the author’s confidence so badly that she told me she was giving up writing. (Don’t worry—ultimately she didn’t.)
“Positive” feedback in this sense doesn’t mean all praise, or empty flattery. It means framing feedback as the carrot, not the stick. “This scene isn’t working” feels a lot different from, “This scene might be a bit stronger/have more impact if…” Just like in a marriage or any relationship, as soon as someone feels under attack, they shut down.
So how do you solicit useful critique, and perhaps more important, how do you assess the input you receive to determine what’s helpful for you and your story and what isn’t?
If you’re like me, you have a shelf of books and a computer folder (or two) of tips, checklists, bullet points, blogs, and advice about how to write a good story. Even though many of these strategies are, on a closer look, rather similar, it’s still pretty overwhelming. No one can do everything, so we find those that appeal to us.
My Favorite Four Writing Exercises
Here are four of the exercises that I’ve found the most useful. They address character, plot, and the quality of the writing.
Listening to Your Protagonist (Adapted from Donald Maass)
The exercise: Visualize yourself sitting across the table from your protagonist. (I like to visualize the setting, too—in my mind, we’re at my kitchen table, but your conversation might be at Starbucks or in a park.) Ask your protagonist these questions, and listen to what she has to tell you. Write down everything that comes out of her mouth, exactly as she says it. (It only works if you actually write down what you “hear” her saying. Don’t just think it.)
How do you feel about the way I’ve portrayed you?
What do you really want to do that I’m not letting you do?
What are you afraid I might put you through? What do you dread seeing yourself do on the page?
What about the other characters? You know them better than I do. Whom am I not getting? What am I missing?
What do you want to say to one of the other characters in the story that I’m not letting you say?
What’s this story really about—to you? What am I getting wrong?
My experience: I did this with my WIP, and it was one of the most amazing exercises I’ve ever done! My protagonist pulled no punches and told me exactly what she thought of me—how I was projecting my own hang-ups onto her, making her too defensive, and suppressing her kinder impulses. She told me that I needed to love her more.
Luckily, I listened to her—and when I did, the story got so much better.
My favorite line from Tangled is when Flynn Rider tells Rapunzel, “I don’t do backstory.” To me, it sets the tone for who he is and how he’s going to change. His past is his past, and he refuses to dump it on anyone—even himself. And that is his backstory.
Backstory is everything that’s happened in your characters’ lives up to the moment we meet them. It’s the people, places, and events he’s experienced. The family and friends she did or didn’t have. How his parents raised him. The way her childhood illness colored her world.
Like real people, your characters have a past. It’s what’s shaped them into who they are and what pushes them up and over their character arc into who they’re supposed to become.
If we share too much too fast, it pulls the reader back in time and slows down the story’s pacing. If we share too little too late, it leaves the reader confused and your characters hollow.
The same way that it’s hard to connect with shallow people in real life, it’s hard to connect with hollow characters in a book. Also, remember, backstory is mostly telling rather than showing. That’s okay sometimes, but too much telling runs the risk of readers skimming your pages.
Backstory. You can’t write with it. You can’t write without it. So how do you sidestep the information dump and slip subtly into the middle ground?
My last post at WITS went in-depth on the aspects of Flow and how to use the psychology of writing to get into the Creative Zone. How does that apply to our misconceptions about getting into the mood for writing?
Here are a few scenarios common to writers. What do you think? Do you agree?
Take a look at this video, if you want a quick refresher on How to Enter the Flow State . If you are ready for a mini quiz, see how Getting Into Flow can get you past these common writing issues.
Pop Quiz Time! Let’s see what your opinions are on these typical writer ideals about getting into the Flow Zone. Fact or Fiction?
As I begin to stretch my writing muscles, I have done some reading about writing to prepare (procrastinate). I thought maybe I should start with a short story or a shorter work before I dive back into my epic novel. As I did this, I went back and read from a book I purchased back about 20 years ago when I started to write down what the voices in my head were telling me. It’s called, How to Write & Sell Your First Novel by Oscar Collier with Frances Spatz Leighton.
The book was written nearly 24 years ago, so I wanted to skim through it and see if there was any information that is still relevant that can help me light my writing fire. A chapter that drew me previously is the 3rd one in the book titled, Do I Start With the Characters or the Plot? In my infinite wisdom, I asked myself this question. My answer was…yes…depending on the type of writing I’m doing.
It’s All About That Plot
For some of my books, namely Extra Innings, with a plot that revolves around time travel and Blood Orange, where the plot is centered on a big event, I had the story mapped out long before I even thought of the characters. The characters were crafted to fit the story instead of the other way around.
I find this to be the case with many of my standalone books and short stories. I have a beginning, middle and end in mind and the characters are fit into the plot as needed with the necessary traits to move the story forward.
What about you? Do you write stories based on an established plot and then fill in with appropriate characters?
I tend to think of “plot first” writing as similar to how movie’s are crafted. Very often the plot is solidified and then the characters are shaped based on what actors they can pull in.
Character is King
When you write a series, you need to have characters that endure over the long haul. Whether it’s James Patterson with his Alex Cross books or Lee Child with the many Jack Reacher books, we quickly become familiar with a character and then we go on various journeys with the author as they put those characters and their known talents and traits in various plot situations. One of my favorite authors that I believe excels at this is Jonathan Kellerman with his Alex Delaware series. Over some 25 years and countless books, Kellerman has gradually evolved his characters, Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis while putting them in numerous different crime solving scenarios.
This is a difficult technique to master. I have tried to do it with my Frank Rozzani detective series and I find it difficult to throttle back the character development so that the backstory, motivation and fears of the characters endure over several books. I’m on book six and I have the rapport between my main characters, Frank Rozzani and Clifford “Jonesy” Jones in a regular rhythm, but finding unique outside forces to challenge them in the context of a single book and over a series is a difficult balancing act.
What about those of you that have written a series or multiple stories with the same characters? Do you find this virtual duality of timelines (book plot vs. long-haul character development) difficult?
What Does Oscar Collier Recommend?
Well, good old Oscar is kind of wishy-washy on this. He cites famous authors like Stephen King as saying it’s all about plot. For King’s genre, this might be true, but when you look at his Gunslinger series, it appears that he spent a lot of time on the growth of his characters while he slowly moved the plot along through seven books (I hated the ending of the last one, if anyone cares).
Collier spends a couple of paragraphs of the entire chapter talking about how plot might be more important and then spends the bulk of the chapter on what makes a good character. He really doesn’t weigh in on which is more important as a starting place.
I think there is good reason for this. There isn’t a hard and fast formula. Some books are character rich and plot sparse, like King’s Gunslinger series (in my opinion). Others are plot rich and character poor like many short stories that we read. A few book hit that balance or sweet spot when it comes to these two important components. One of my favorites, To Kill a Mockingbird, is an example I would point to that has rich characters and a plot that keeps you engaged. There are many others as well.
So, What About You?
So, once again, I’ve thrown my opinions at you, but I’m interested in yours. Where do you start? Do you plot out your story first? Do you start with characters that you’ve carefully crafted and build the story around them? Do you take a hybrid approach? Let me know. Let’s have a discussion